The severity of weather should have a big impact on just how much offense NFL fans will see in an epic Super Bowl XLVIII matchup at MetLife Stadium between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
This clash of the Broncos No. 1 offense versus Seattle's top-ranked defense should be something to behold in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday, Feb. 2. However, the current Weather Channel forecast projects a nighttime low of 26 degrees with a 50 percent chance of "wintry mix" precipitation.
Based on the personnel for both teams and the circumstances the cold conditions will dictate, there are a couple of stars for each team best positioned to put up the biggest numbers.
Here are some predictions as to who will emerge from this thrilling clash for the Lombardi Trophy with the gaudiest stat lines.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium East Rutherford, N.J.
Live Stream: FoxSports.com
Spread: Denver Broncos -3 (per Bovada)
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Even in the cold—where the 37-year-old has a reputation for struggling—the ball is going to be in Manning's legendarily capable hands more often than not. The question isn't really whether he'll rack up yardage with his incredible supporting cast, but rather whether or not he can avoid mistakes.
Manning is facing a defense that forced a league-most 39 takeaways during the regular season and forced San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick into three turnovers in the fourth quarter alone in the NFC Championship Game.
That's not to compare Kaepernick with Manning—they're two totally different QBs at far different stages of their respective careers. It just gives an idea of how terrifying the Seahawks can be, and as solid as they are in the secondary, it all starts in the front seven.
A deep stock of pass-rushers along with a speedy, underrated linebacker corps is sure to give Manning headaches and exotic pressures to deal with, in addition to a stalwart defensive backfield.
Anticipate Seattle starting off strong with its ground-and-pound offense, then forcing Manning to take to the air a lot in the second half. While that should produce a 300-yard passing effort, it will also give way to a couple of costly mistakes.
Projected stats: 24-of-42 passing for 310 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
On the other hand, less burden will be placed on Wilson to win this game for Seattle. With a bruising back like Marshawn Lynch to lean on, there's no need to press the ball into coverage—even against the league's 27th-ranked pass defense.
Experience is definitely on Manning's side, but Wilson—a 2012 third-round draft pick—has been doubted throughout his days on the gridiron because of his height.
The stage hasn't proven too big for him yet, so why should that change in the opportunity of a lifetime, when the onus isn't on him to deliver a maiden championship for this Seahawks franchise?
Lynch and the defense are charged with the task of getting it done. Wilson just has to make sure he doesn't make any boneheaded plays that would shorten the field for Denver's high-octane offense.
Then again, Wilson isn't one to sit in the pocket, check it down and be the true definition of a game manager. When his protection breaks down, the 25-year-old is a magician in scramble drills, often hooking up with his receivers for big gains downfield.
Wilson is a more-than-capable ball-carrier and could devastate the Broncos with his legs in this one. Look for the read-option to be utilized a lot, because with these types of stakes, there's no need to "protect" Wilson or rein him in any longer.
That will help the Seahawks command time of possession and force Manning and Co. to be one-dimensional as the game wears on—and possibly even result in Wilson being named the MVP.
Projected stats: 16-of-24 passing for 220 yards, 2 TDs; 8 carries, 65 yards, TD
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
The casual fan can probably read between the lines and infer that yours truly believes Seattle will be hosting a championship parade when this one's over. That would be true.
One man who could prevent Wilson from taking home the MVP—presuming he puts up numbers like those above—is Seahawks superstar cornerback Richard Sherman. It's likely that Sherman's task will be to lock up Denver's top receiver in Demaryius Thomas, leaving plenty of opportunities for Decker to go against Byron Maxwell.
The Seahawks like to talk, but Decker is taking a business-like approach to this difficult showdown, per USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones:
We don't need to talk about it, we need to play about it...We're a confident team and proud of what we've accomplished, but at the same time, we know we have to play 60 minutes of football, and we're pretty humble about it...If you don't want somebody to talk, give him a reason not to.
Thomas received 143 targets from Manning in the regular season, but Decker saw 137 passes fly his way. That ratio may come to the surprise of some since Thomas is viewed as the superior player and more dynamic athlete.
But give credit to Decker, who matched Thomas with 19 plays of 20 yards or more. Seattle will be focusing on taking Thomas out of the game plan, especially after his seven-catch, 134-yard performance in the AFC title game.
The drop-off between Manning targeting Thomas and Decker is minimal, per Pro Football Focus:
At 6'3" and 214 pounds, Decker will have a size advantage even on Maxwell—a 6'1", 207-pounder himself who is capable of playing press coverage but isn't up to Sherman's caliber.
If Decker winds up as Denver's leading receiver, it will be due to the physicality of Seattle's front seven knocking tight end Julius Thomas out of his rhythm and to Jeremy Lane doing a stellar job on Broncos slot wideout Wes Welker.
Among Manning's predicted three touchdowns, the red zone-friendly Decker will haul in at least one.
Projected stats: 8 receptions, 140 yards, TD
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
"Beast Mode" will have to put the team on his back one more time, and with a couple weeks off this postseason to rest his battered body, he's shown up as big as ever.
After registering three 100-yard rushing performances in the regular season, Lynch has logged two such efforts in Seattle's two playoff wins—totaling 249 yards and three touchdowns in that span.
Head coach Pete Carroll knows the importance of keeping Lynch fresh, so it makes sense that he held the 27-year-old out of practices last week, per ESPN's Ed Werder:
Even though the Seahawks have lacked many weapons in the passing game and allowed opponents to stuff the box as a result, the power with which Lynch runs renders that tactic irrelevant. Imagine what the presence of playmaker Percy Harvin will likely do in opening up running lanes.
As taxing as Lynch can be on the opposition with his strength, his explosiveness and home run hitting ability is perhaps underrated, as ESPN Stats & Info highlights:
In addition to aiding Wilson's cause, Harvin can at least create the diversion that he might take a handoff or two. That could be just enough for Lynch to break into the second level, where defenses want almost no part in trying to tackle him.
Lynch has so many factors working in his favor that anything less than a 100-yard showing—health permitting—will be a disappointment. Don't be surprised if he far exceeds that.
Projected stats: 30 carries, 155 yards, TD; 3 receptions, 25 yards
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