The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks offer up one of the most closely matched Super Bowls ever. Well, at least the perception of the matchup that is. If one of the team's dominate the keys I've laid out below, this game won't be close.
Still, the majority don't see that happening.
As Mike Wilkening of Pro Football Talk reported, the Seahawks opened as the favorite for this game, but the Broncos quickly were made slight favorites.
As of Jan. 26, Bovada has the Broncos are three-point favorites for the game. Wilkening also pointed out that just four prior Super Bowls have featured a spread of a field goal or less.
With teams this evenly matched, key matchups are going to be especially key. Both teams are looking for just the slightest edge to sway the scales in their favor.
These three areas offer up a clear path to that edge.
Broncos Offensive Line vs. Seahawks' Pass Rush
I don't view this game as being as close a matchup as most. I detail why here. The quick summary is that I don't think the vaunted Seahawks' pass defense will be able to stop Peyton Manning the Broncos' record-breaking pass attack.
As wonderful as the Seahawks secondary is, Manning has far too many weapons to choose from to keep him from producing. That is assuming he has time to throw.
The Seahawks have an excellent pass rush, having finished sixth in the league in sack percentage. Denver, however, has an even better offensive line. The Broncos led the league in sacked percentage, per Team Rankings, and that group has faced some stiff tests.
The Kansas City Chiefs finished the season ranked eighth in sack percentage. In two games against the Broncos, the Chiefs didn't get a single sack on Manning.
Denver's offensive line has also looked better than ever in the postseason:
The Broncos O-line played out of its mind in this game. Manning could've been wearing a tuxedo back there against a Bill Belichick defense.— Scott Stump (@Scott_Stump) January 19, 2014
Still, with New England's injury-ravaged front seven, their pass rush doesn't have near the athletes of Seattle's. If Seahawks pass-rushers like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril can physically dominate, the Seahawks will be able to get consistent pressure on Manning. That will leave them in a position for their defense to dominate the game.
Pot Roast vs. Seahawks' Interior Offensive Line
No, pot roast is not a play on words commenting on the first Super Bowl to feature teams from cities that legalized marijuana. I'm referring to massive Denver defensive tackle, Terrance Knighton.
Knighton has had a wonderful year in his first season with the Broncos. Although, his impact can't be measured in stats.
Knighton is the type of defensive lineman who will routinely occupy blockers and free things up for his teammates.
He does have explosion to go with his girth and strength, and Knighton does make plays in the backfield from time to time.
He displayed that ability in the AFC Championship Game:
BRONCOS SACK!! Tom Brady on 4th down is sacked by Terrance Knighton --- a.k.a. POT ROAST!! Denver takes over on downs.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 19, 2014
Knighton was absolutely dominant in that game. He disrupted the Patriots' surging running game, and he was the clear leader of an outstanding defensive effort from the Broncos:
With a boost from Terrance Knighton, Denver and its D stuffed the Pats 26-16 to reach the Super Bowl: http://t.co/ddpPvplT2I— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 20, 2014
What was most impressive about that performance was that Knighton led the Broncos to their success, despite the absence of two of Denver's best defensive players: Von Miller and Chris Harris:
Den S Ihenacho: “If you said we’d have our best game of the year without Harris and Miller, I would’ve slapped you." http://t.co/2u5G4sf0H4— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) January 20, 2014
Knighton will once again be key in this game.
On offense, the Seahawks like to run the ball as much as possible. With Marshawn Lynch looking as beastly as ever, the Seahawks rushed for over 170 yards against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, and then rushed for 115 yards against the stout defense of the 49ers.
If the Seahawks interior lineman, led by center Max Unger, can't move Pot Roast off his spot in this game, even Lynch will have a hard time reaching full Beast Mode.
Wes Welker vs. Walter Thurmond
Of course, the highlighted matchup of this contest comes with the Broncos' record-breaking pass offense going against the Seahawks' league-leading pass defense. Most notably is the possibility of the ever talkative and self-confident Richard Sherman going against the bigger Demaryius Thomas.
Still, the key matchup out of this group will come further inside on the field.
Now, the Seahawks play a lot of zone. So, it isn't accurate to say Thomas will be matching up against Sherman or Thurmond on Welker, etc.
There is no doubt, however, that Thurmond and Welker will see a lot of each other. Thurmond is the Seahawks nickel corner, and Welker is a slot-receiving maestro, and though the Seahawks play a lot of zone, they typically do so with bump coverage.
Although Eric Decker and Thomas are Manning's preferred weapons in the offense, Welker will be vital to the Broncos in this game.
Also, while there has been a distinct lack of trash-talk between these two teams, Thurmond wasn't shy about blasting Welker for his controversial hit that knocked Aqib Talib out of the AFC Championship Game:
Seahawks CB Walter Thurmond agrees with Bill Belichick about Wes Welker play: ‘It was really uncalled for’ http://t.co/OfmhDEuuHv— WEEI (@WEEI) January 23, 2014
If the Seahawks do manage to pressure Manning, Welker is in the best position to give Manning a quick and safe outlet. He can also roam the middle of the field and pick up key third downs to help extend drives.
Of course, if Thurmond can stifle Welker at the line, Manning is going to be forced to turning further outside to find his weapons. Although Manning and Denver can survive with that attack, that is going to be a difficult task against Seattle's secondary.
If Welker is wreaking havoc in the middle, however, Seattle is going to need its vaunted 12th man to come on the field to help cover all of the Broncos' weapons.