It's the Super Bowl matchup we've wanted all season. The top team in the AFC, the Denver Broncos, against the top team in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks. The best offense against the best defense. Peyton Manning against the league's most dangerous secondary.
It's the perfect matchup.
So which players will thrive in this game? Who will post the biggest stat lines? Below is a projected output for some of the biggest stars in this much-anticipated showdown. And no, I won't be predicting how many memorable postgame outbursts Richard Sherman will have.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Denver (-2.5), according to Vegas Insider
Denver's Offensive Weapons
Demaryius Thomas is likely to draw Sherman for much of the game, and while the big, physical Thomas should win that matchup from time to time, testing Sherman has proven to be a rather poor strategy.
Eric Decker will draw plenty of Byron Maxwell, a player that has replaced Brandon Browner in this secondary without missing much of a beat. And Wes Welker won't have a walk in the park standing opposite Walter Thurmond.
That means Julius Thomas will likely need to have a big showing. He's been excellent in the postseason thus far, with 14 receptions on 18 targets (the second-most for Denver this postseason) for 161 yards, and his size and athleticism make him a matchup headache for any defense.
Of course, as Mike Wilkening of Pro Football Talk notes, the Seahawks have been stingy against very, very good tight ends in the postseason:
It will be interesting to see how the Broncos utilize Thomas in Super Bowl XLVIII. In the Seahawks’ two postseason wins, opposing tight ends have caught a combined five passes for 60 yards in 13 targets, with neither the Saints’ Jimmy Graham (one catch, eight yards) nor the 49ers’ Vernon Davis (two catches, 16 yards) having much impact.
Of course, the X-factor in all of this is that Peyton Manning had two weeks to prepare for this Seattle defense. And when you give a super computer like Manning an extra week to prepare for a defense—even a defense as good as Seattle's—that's dangerous.
Running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball could also be key players in this contest. The San Francisco 49ers ran for 161 yards on Seattle's defense, though 130 of those came from Colin Kaepernick. However, with the Seahawks having to likely make their nickel package their default defense against Denver, the Broncos could find some running lanes to exploit.
Seattle will slow down Denver's offense—it's that good—but it's hard to imagine it'll stop it altogether. Here are projections for the Broncos' key offensive players:
- Peyton Manning: 27-of-38 with 284 yards, two touchdowns, one interception
- Demaryius Thomas: Three receptions for 47 yards
- Wes Welker: Seven receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown
- Eric Decker: Six receptions for 65 yards
- Julius Thomas: Six receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown
- Knowshon Moreno: 14 rushes for 60 yards, three receptions for 25 yards
- Montee Ball: 11 rushes for 65 yards
- Matt Prater: Three field goals
Seattle's Offensive Weapons
One interesting thing in this game for Seattle's offense will be the return of Percy Harvin. How big a role will he have? Could he be the X-factor in this contest, or will the Seahawks be cautious in the number of touches he receives?
Very quietly, Russell Wilson has struggled a bit in his last six games. His highest total in passing yardage during that time is the 215 yards he accumulated against the Niners in the NFC Championship Game, while he has totaled five touchdown passes in that time.
Of course, that hasn't kept the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl, in large part because Marshawn Lynch has rushed for 249 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason. Denver can expect a heavy dose of Skittles in this contest, though after holding the New England Patriots offense to just 64 rushing yards in the AFC Championship, it'll be confident it can slow Lynch as well.
If they do, it's hard to see the Seahawks winning this game. But few teams have been able to slow down Lynch this year. Here are projections for the Seahawks' key offensive players:
- Russell Wilson: 16-of-28 with 217 yards, a touchdown and an interception, four rushes for 27 yards and a score
- Marshawn Lynch: 26 rushes for 124 yards and a touchdown
- Percy Harvin: Three receptions for 41 yards, two rushes for 17 yards
- Golden Tate: Four receptions for 67 yards, one touchdown
- Doug Baldwin: Five receptions for 80 yards
- Zach Miller: Three receptions for 23 yards
Key Defensive Performances
Sherman will get an interception in this game, mark it down. He's going to give Demaryius Thomas fits all game long, and he'll probably bait Manning into at least one pick. But Manning is smart, and he'll pick and choose his spots to target Sherman's side very selectively.
Expect Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas to be all over the field and lead the Seahawks in tackles as they've done all season. Ditto for Danny Trevathan of the Broncos, who has been excellent all year long and will be very busy trying to contain Lynch.
Terrance Knighton won't light up the stat sheet, but the Denver nose tackle will be instrumental in his team's efforts to slow down the Seattle running game. And expect Shaun Phillips to get after Russell Wilson in this game and rack up 2.5 sacks—the former San Diego Charger has 12 total sacks this season, including playoffs.
Denver wins 23-21