Football is a team sport, but it's always exciting to seek out individual matchups that could make or break the outcome of a game. There happen to be several notable ones that should go a long way in deciding Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
MetLife Stadium will play host to the action on Sunday, Feb. 2, and should at least prove to be cold if not a little snowy. That could force improvised game plans and adjusted tactics, but these elite NFL clubs should stick to their strengths for the most part.
Let's take a look at where some of the marquee players will do battle with each other and how that will impact which franchise emerges from East Rutherford with the Lombardi Trophy.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2 at 6:25 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Live Stream: FoxSports.com
Spread: Denver by 3, according to Bovada.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks vs. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
There may not be a better cover cornerback in the game than Sherman. He certainly lived up to that billing by deflecting a last-minute pass to the end zone that resulted in an interception and a Seahawks 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
What happened after that was vintage Sherman—for better or worse—when he attacked Niners receiver Michael Crabtree:
A similar outburst isn't likely to happen since there isn't much of a history between Sherman and Denver's Thomas.
Sherman won't battle the Broncos No. 1 wideout the entire game, but he should stay on him for the majority of the time. Thomas has excellent size and breakaway speed that makes him a threat to stretch the field or take it to the house on a bubble screen.
Something has to give here, because as well as Sherman continues to play, Jeff Darlington of NFL Network points out how strong Thomas has showed up in the postseason:
I love seeing Demaryius Thomas turn into a star. In five postseason games, he's averaging 104.4 yards per game with four touchdowns. Clutch.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) January 20, 2014
Getting physical with the powerful Thomas will be a taller task than Sherman is accustomed to.
There's no question the Seattle star has the disadvantage in terms of sprinting, so if he slips even slightly or doesn't get a good jam, Thomas could be racing to the end zone in no time.
Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks vs. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
With a deep supply of pass-rushers and a sensational secondary, it's easy to overlook Seattle's linebacker corps—particularly the man in the heart of it in Wagner.
The second-year pro will be making adjustments and attempting to match wits with Manning at the line of scrimmage. That will prove to be a difficult task, but having a stellar defensive coordinator will help the cause.
Wagner is a rangy linebacker who has blitzed with effectiveness (five sacks), has the athleticism to drop in coverage and is a sure tackler, racking up a personal-best 15 combined tackles in the win over San Francisco.
Tony Jones of the Salt Lake City Tribune reflected on Wagner's mind-boggling numbers and how he figured the former Utah State standout would be playing on Sundays from an early stage:
Didn't realize bobby Wagner had 15 tackles last night. All of usu knew that dude was a pro by his sophomore season in Logan— Tony Jones (@Tjonessltrib) January 20, 2014
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has also been impressed with Wagner's rapid development in the pros:
Great job spying by Bobby Wagner. Very good young player. He's overlooked at MLB with so much talent on that defense.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 11, 2014
Since Manning isn't a mobile quarterback in the mold of Colin Kaepernick, the opportunities open up even more for Wagner to utilize his speed to his advantage and jump into passing lanes.
That should make the short passes and pick plays Denver's offense thrives on all the more difficult, in addition to the tight press coverage Seattle likes to play—particularly Sherman.
It will take patience and excellent protection—not to mention some surgeon-accurate throws—for Manning to find his bevy of targets and produce at the rate he's been accustomed to this season. If all goes according to plan, Wagner figures to be a big part in the effort to disrupt Manning's timing.
But if Manning continues to check into the right plays and Wagner can't make the proper shifts, the uptempo Broncos offense may be too much for even the mighty Seahawks to handle.
Max Unger, C, Seattle Seahawks vs. Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
Knighton was a disruptive force in Denver's 26-16 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, sacking Pats QB Tom Brady on a key fourth down and wreaking havoc throughout.
Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today reports on the sequence of events leading up to that pivotal moment, when the 330-pounder initially went to the sideline and would have been out of the play had New England not called timeout:
I said, "You know what? Me being a leader, I should be in there right now." A formation came up that I recognized. I knew how [Patriots guard Logan Mankins] was going to attack me. I knew exactly what I needed to do and it worked...Every player dreams of that moment, and I was ready for it. I had been thinking about what sack dance to do if I got one, what to do on TV, stuff like that. But when it came down to it, the adrenaline was pumping, and I didn't know what to do but scream.
That gives an idea of the type of motor Knighton has, which will leave the All-Pro Unger with his hands full in his tangles with the defensive tackle, who frequently lines up over the center.
The Seahawks rely on a physical rushing attack spearheaded between the tackles by running back Marshawn Lynch. In addition to pushing the pocket from the inside, Knighton has the ability to blow up designed runs in the backfield and open up chances for the rest of the front seven to make stops.
Against the vaunted 49ers defense, Seattle was able to get enough push to get Lynch loose after only managing three points through the first half.
Which one-on-one matchup are you most eagerly anticipating?
Unger will have help in that double-teams are going to be used to handle Knighton, yet Seattle doesn't have the best guards around to handle him on the inside. Running plays won't see Knighton and Unger on consistent collision courses at the point of attack, either.
Once again, though, it's up to Unger to be the anchor in the trenches and ensure that the Seahawks pick up on the stunts and versatility Knighton is capable of deploying.