With the two consensus favorites meeting in the Super Bowl, there is certainly no shortage of star power between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
With so many strength vs. strength matchups, it's extremely difficult to project who might win the epic tug of war between Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman, Percy Harvin vs. Champ Bailey, etc. Nevertheless, even with so much depth between the two squads, there is still a small handful of primary stars who will have the largest say on the game's outcome.
Super Bowl XLVIII should be an intensely physical chess match, with both brain and brawn playing equal roles. Let's shine the spotlight on a few of the most important stars and project their stat lines on Super Sunday.
Russell Wilson: 17-of-30, 200 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Marshawn Lynch: 26 carries, 110 yards, 2 TD
Richard Sherman: 1 INT, 2 tackles, 4 receptions allowed
The Seahawks will likely attempt what the Patriots failed at in the AFC Championship—establishing a ground game against a suddenly stout Denver front seven.
San Diego and New England both attempted to run the ball not because the run defense is Denver's weakness, but because of fear of Peyton Manning wearing out the defense with long, sustained drives. As things turned out, the Chargers and Patriots played right into the Broncos' hands, and Denver dominated time of possession against both AFC foes.
As such, expect Russell Wilson to attempt a few more throws than he usually would. Seattle ran the ball more often than any other team during the regular season, but the Broncos secondary is a much more obvious weakness. Moreover, the Seahawks are not afraid to avoid the big mistake and turn over the game to their defense, so they will not necessarily seek to play keep-away from the Broncos.
And yet, when the Seahawks do run the ball, it's hard to imagine Denver totally stifling Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is a different animal than any back the Broncos faced in the AFC field, and Pro Football Focus conjured this eye-popping stat about his season:
As for the Seattle defense, Richard Sherman has always backed up his ceaseless trash talk with equally extraordinary play. Sherman will face the toughest test of his career against Peyton Manning and is already putting the bull's-eye on his back, per Eric Adelson of Yahoo! Sports:
Oh, he talks. Asked if he's going to talk like this in New York, with every media outlet on the planet listening intently, Sherman said, "Pretty much, why not?"
Sherman is now the anti-Manning: lined up across from the legendary quarterback not only on the field in the Super Bowl in two weeks, but also in the minds of many fans. Peyton Manning, the ultimate ambassador for the sport, is jovial and polite. Sherman is jovial and impolitic. Manning is indisputably good for the game. Sherman? Well, that will be the endless debate.
Sherman, who will likely face Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for much of the game, is still an elite corner who the Broncos would be wise to avoid challenging frequently. Expect Sherman to get beat a couple times but to also come up with a big play if Manning plays with fire too many times.
Peyton Manning: 28-of-40, 320 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Wes Welker: 9 receptions, 95 yards, 1 TD
Shaun Phillips: 2 sacks, 1 FF
Even against Seattle's dominant pass defense, the Broncos have enough weapons where they should not be afraid to let Peyton Manning air the ball out. Cold weather or not, Manning is on a historic roll and shredded a Patriots defense that held him to his lowest regular-season yardage output:
Seattle's large secondary gives most receivers fits because they are able to jam more effectively than most teams, and all the corners have tremendous ball skills that make outside-the-numbers passing near impossible. As ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold notes, the Denver receivers face a stiff challenge in creating separation:
Against the Seahawks' “Legion of Boom'' secondary, the Broncos' pass-catchers will have to win some physical one-on-one matchups and be aggressive to the ball. Earlier in the regular season, the Colts, Patriots and Chargers all had limited success with the rough stuff against the Broncos' wideouts, in particular. Against the Seahawks, the Broncos' receivers have to get off the jam and give themselves a chance to get into the route and not disrupt quarterback Peyton Manning's timing.
Consequently, Wes Welker will almost certainly be Manning's favorite target in the Super Bowl. Seahawks slot corner Walter Thurmond is certainly no slouch, but he stands out as the most approachable member of the Seattle secondary. Welker has earned his reputation as the league's preeminent slot receiver because of his ability to separate from anyone, and he should see plenty of targets from Manning.
Defensively, Shaun Phillips is Denver's best pass-rusher in Von Miller's absence. Phillips had a subpar game against the Patriots' stellar offensive line but previously compiled two sacks against the Chargers in the divisional round.
The Seattle offensive line stands out as the team's clear weak link, and right tackle Breno Giacomini has had a rough, injury-plagued campaign. Phillips should get plenty of opportunities against Giacomini, and look for him to make a game-changing play or two.