Who will step up?
In the Super Bowl, it's often a single play that is the difference, especially when the matchup is as even as this year's contest between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Sometimes, that player is obscure, like David Tyree. Sometimes, it's a familiar hero like Tom Brady.
So which players will step up for Denver? Let's find out.
When: Sunday, February 2 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Sunday, February 2 at 11:30 p.m. GMT
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Streaming: FOX Sports Go
Mobile: NFL Mobile app
Spread: Denver (-2.5), according to Vegas Insider
Peyton Manning, QB
For the Broncos to win this game, Peyton Manning needs to have a big performance. That's no surprise, but it's also something that doesn't happen very often against Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary.
Yards and scores through the air might not be easy to come by, but the most important thing for Manning is to limit the turnovers or avoid them altogether. The Seahawks led the NFL with 39 takeaways and also with a plus-20 turnover differential.
But in three regular-season losses, that turnover differential was just plus-two (in large part to Carson Palmer's four interceptions in the Arizona Cardinals' Week 16 win).
Manning has generally protected the rock this season, throwing just 11 interceptions in 18 games, and he's been extremely accurate with the ball, as Pro Football Focus notes:
Take out drops and Peyton Manning was accurate on 77% of passes this season. Wilson minus drops was at 71.9%— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 25, 2014
This isn't going to be one of the vintage Broncos' offensive onslaughts, but if Manning can limit the turnovers and sustain drives, the Broncos will be tough to beat.
Julius Thomas, TE
The Seahawks really shut down Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis in the playoffs, holding the pair to a total of three receptions for 24 yards. But against those teams, the Seattle defense didn't also have to worry about weapons on the outside, like Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker.
Yes, in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks have safeties capable of playing against Julius Thomas. But it's a huge thing to ask to expect any one player to shut down a guy with Thomas' size and speed for an entire game.
The Seahawks are likely to stay in a nickel package for the majority of the game, and doing so will leave them a choice—to keep a safety inside the box to support against the run, or to go all out against the pass and invite the running game.
If they choose the former route, don't be surprised if Thomas makes them pay by exploiting coverage mismatches.
Danny Trevathan, LB and Terrance Knighton, DT
While Manning and the offense gets all the plaudits, it was the defense—namely, the run defense—that was the key factor in the postseason. The San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots each possessed strong running attacks, but Denver limited them to a total of 129 yards on the ground.
A huge reason for that was the performance of linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
Trevathan now has 140 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles in 18 games (and is quite good dropping into coverage), while "Pot Roast" (as they call Knighton) has been a huge clog in the middle of the trenches, derailing opposing rushing attacks.
And Knighton was an absolute force against New England, as Peter King of MMQB.com noted:
Knighton made four stops in the run game for one yard or less against an offensive line that had steamrolled two straight teams. Seattle center Max Unger had better work overtime studying Knighton’s moves. The Denver lineman just killed New England center Ryan Wendell. On a first-quarter run by LaGarrette Blount, over left tackle, Knighton quickly shed Wendell and shoved aside pulling tackle Marcus Cannon; Shaun Phillips got Blount high and Knighton got him low; gain of one. Later, Knighton rode Wendell, shoved him aside, and crushed Blount; no gain. Another effortless shedding of Wendell in the third quarter on a Shane Vereen counter; loss of one.
His sack of Tom Brady on 4th-and-3 late in the third quarter, with Denver up 20-3, was the clincher for Denver. Lined up over perennial Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, Knighton took a jab step to Mankins’ right, then slapped his hands away and had an easy path to Brady. “After that, it was all about finishing,” he said.
It's no secret that Seattle's offensive game plan is centered around running the ball successfully with Marshawn Lynch. Because of Trevathan and Knighton, that strategy won't be so easy to implement.
Broncos win, 23-21