Super Bowl XLVIII: Burning Questions for the NFL's Championship Game
Icy polar vortex winds are blowing throughout the northeasterly parts of the United States, making thermometers and stomachs sink throughout the football-watching world in the week before Super Bowl XLVIII.
Preparations for the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl are underway, as the good folks at The Weather Channel are already sounding alarms about extreme cold early in Super Bowl week, and possible snow before the game itself.
All football fans have to do this weekend is cozy up to the fire, think football thoughts and ponder the burning questions coming into Super Bowl weekend.
Unlike the AFC and NFC Championship Games, the two teams involved haven't played a recent competitive game. There are a lot of unknowns; even Vegas is stumped. Denver opened as just a one-point favorite, per Oddsshark.com, though heavy Denver betting has moved the line to plus-three at the time of this writing.
Here are the questions everyone with a dime to drop on the game would love to know the answers to.
Can the Seahawks Receivers Get Open?
Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are fine receivers. Baldwin especially has shown a knack for getting open deep and adjusting to quarterback Russell Wilson's deep balls.
But with the exception of banged-up wild card Percy Harvin, there isn't a receiver on Seattle's roster who poses a matchup nightmare with Denver's secondary.
The Broncos were only the NFL's 22nd-ranked scoring defense during the regular season, per Pro Football Reference, but they've held the 12th- and third-best scoring offenses to just 17 and 16 points, respectively, in the playoffs so far.
In order for the Seahawks to keep pace with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and their top-ranked scoring offense, their receivers are going to have to get open early and often.
Harvin, whose recovery from a season-long hip injury and AFC Championship Game-suffered concussion seems likely, could be the X-factor that breaks the game open.
"Harvin says his hip is feeling 'pretty good,' " Tom Pelissero of USA Today tweeted, "Got the hip 'tuned up' yesterday. Doesn't think #Saints were targeting him."
Can the Broncos Running Backs Roll?
The Seattle Seahawks defense is one of the very best of the last 30 years, as my recent breakdown of their historic stats attests.
Still, if that unit has a weakness it's that it's "only" really, really good against the run, especially in the space between the defensive ends and in front of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
If the three-headed monster of Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman can get going early, it could dramatically change the pace and result of the game.
Broncos right guard Louis Vasquez has been one of the best free-agent signings of 2013, ranking third overall in Pro Football Focus' grades (subscription required). Center Manuel Ramirez is no slouch either, ranking fifth overall.
As potent as quarterback Peyton Manning and the passing game are, getting the inside run game going could be even more crucial to the Broncos' chances for victory.
Will Russell Wilson Take What the Broncos Give Him?
Russell Wilson is an incredibly gifted athlete, but what makes him special as a quarterback is that he relies on his field-reading skills and arm first, second and third before taking off to run—and even then, he usually looks to extend the play with his feet and make a throw, rather than picking up yards.
However, sometimes Wilson's so focused on being a great passer that he misses out on golden opportunities.
As SB Nation's Stephen White broke down in his film review of the NFC Championship Game, Wilson missed chances to gash the San Francisco 49ers for many contact-free yards while waiting for his receivers to get open.
In the Super Bowl, Wilson had better take those chances when he gets them.
Can the Broncos Offensive Line Protect Peyton Manning?
As I've already noted, the Broncos offensive line is one of the more underrated units in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Broncos had the second-best pass protection in the league in 2013.
That all said, the Seahawks pass rush is no less effective. In fact, PFF grades theirs as the best unit in the NFL by a wide margin.
Sacking opposing quarterbacks on 7.7 percent of dropbacks, per Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks were the fifth-best unit in the NFL at taking down the quarterback.
If Manning and the Broncos are going to do what they do better than anyone ever has—score points through the air—in Super Bowl XLVIII, they're going to need to keep Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons and the rest of the Seahawks away from Manning.
Will John Fox Stay Conservative?
John Fox is a fine football coach. In fact, he's just the sixth coach in NFL history to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl, per the Denver Post.
He's also notoriously conservative.
In spring 2013, Football Outsiders did a study of head coaches' aggressiveness in play-calling from 1991-2012. Fox finished 79th out of 84.
While it makes sense to be extra risk-averse in the playoffs, where one mistake can end your season, the Super Bowl is it—it's the destination, it's what you play for, it's what your whole career has been building up to. There's no such thing as "survive and advance" in a title game; you play to win.
Just ask Sean Payton: He called a surprise onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, and the extra possession helped win him a ring.
Can the Broncos Receivers Get Open?
Being at the receiving end of the greatest season any quarterback's ever had doesn't hurt, but this group is seriously talented. They all have varying amounts of size, speed, toughness, quickness and hands, and they're dialed in to what Peyton Manning wants from them.
That said, they're going up against one of the most talented defensive secondaries ever assembled.
Much like Super Bowl XXXVI, where the deep, talented secondary of the New England Patriots surprisingly shut down Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf, the Broncos receivers will have to work hard to get open, even with Manning and his offensive designs in their favor.
Which Special Teams Will Prevail?
You know Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater broke the NFL's all-time record for longest field goal this season. That's awesome.
What you might not know is that Prater was tops among NFL kickers in Pro Football Focus' grades (subscription required), or that Broncos punter Britton Colquitt finished eighth in Pro Football Focus' punter grades.
The Broncos also have a solid coverage unit and notoriously dangerous kick returner Trindon Holliday, who last season became the first returner to take both a punt and kickoff back to the house in a playoff game.
Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard would surely take this time to remind you that every game can be won or lost by the third phase of football—even "The Big Game."
Can Anyone Stop Terrance Knighton?
At the beginning of the 2013 regular season, Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was looking for redemption.
Allowed to leave the team that drafted him, the Jacksonville Jaguars, after his third-round rookie contract expired, the promising-but-inconsistent free agent reunited with his old head coach, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
As I recently wrote, Knighton's progress since then has been incredible. He immediately re-established himself as a starter, and over the back half of the season, he has been an impact playmaker.
The 6'3", 335-pound man they call "Pot Roast" has found a new level of hand technique and explosion, and it was his 4th-and-2 sack of Tom Brady that punched the Broncos' ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Seahawks will need to shut him down if they're going to keep quarterback Russell Wilson upright.
Can Marshawn Lynch Boss the Game?
Marshawn Lynch is one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the NFL.
In the 2013 regular season, "Beast Mode" racked up a sixth-best 1,257 yards on the ground and a joint-best 12 rushing touchdowns.
As I wrote about Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell this week, Seattle deploys Lynch's power behind an athletic line that loves to move, stretch and zone block to either side of the field. When Lynch cuts back, he often has wide-open space in front of him—and only terrified second-level defenders between himself and the end zone.
This running game is the foundation for everything the Seahawks do on both sides of the ball. It sets up quarterback Russell Wilson for lethal play-action and bootleg passes that freeze the defense and open it up for long passes. It also keeps the Seahawks defense off the field, giving their rotational pass-rushers a big advantage in the fourth quarter.
If Lynch can take over the game early, the Broncos will be in big trouble.
Will Peyton Manning Choke?
Way back in 2003, Peyton Manning was called "The Picasso of Choke Artists" by ColdHardFootballFacts.com's Kerry Byrne.
Today, after Manning's been to two Super Bowls and won one of them—and beaten nemesis Tom Brady head-to-head in the AFC Championship Game to get to Super Bowl XLVIII, his third—this seems a little outlandish.
But Byrne is a respected football researcher, and at the time, Manning's postseason performance (or lack thereof) was hard to defend.
On the heels of the greatest season any quarterback has ever had, Manning appears to have answered all the questions.
As long as the Broncos don't lose this game specifically because of mistakes he makes, that will indeed be the case: Manning will have won two Super Bowls with two different teams and two different head coaches and whatever else he does won't ever be able to tarnish those accomplishments.
Until he actually pulls it off, though, this question will burn all week long.