Based on the media coverage of the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos in advance of the Super Bowl, some fans might have gotten the impression that the NFL champion would actually be decided in a head-to-head showdown between Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman.
In fact, there will be over 100 other guys playing in Super Bowl XLVIII, and these four under-the-radar names could very well decide who hoists the hardware and who hangs their head after the final whistle.
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: FOX Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider
Over/Under: 47, per CBS Sports
Byron Maxwell, Cornerback, Seahawks
For all the hoopla surrounding the "Legion of Boom" secondary and the three Pro Bowlers who lead it—Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas—the fourth member of the group has been rotating for some time now. As luck would have it, suspensions have thrust Maxwell into the spotlight, and he has not disappointed.
Cornerback Walter Thurmond had been starting for Brandon Browner, who is indefinitely suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but Thurmond picked up his own substance-abuse suspension.
Thus, the door opened for Maxwell, and he seized the opportunity. As Richard Sherman told ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill about him, "He's the new kid on the block."
Maxwell has made his presence felt on one of the most elite defensive units in the league. He finished the regular season on a high note, snagging four interceptions over the final four regular-season games.
He will likely be tasked with blanketing Wes Welker, who could make for a handful over the middle all night long, but Maxwell has an entire legion to help him out.
Danny Trevathan, Outside Linebacker, Broncos
If you are not an ardent Broncos fan, you might not know who Danny Trevathan is. You can just call him Denver's leading tackler with 128 total, 87 solo and seven for a loss. He's a plucky young player who has flourished in the second season, but it could have ended as quickly as it started.
In Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, Trevathan picked off a pass and was headed for paydirt, but he got a little anxious about celebrating and flipped the ball away a moment before he crossed the goal line. That outrageous mental lapse cost Denver a touchdown and surely put him in the coaches' doghouse.
No matter, Trevathan kept working his tail off and let his play do the talking. Just four weeks later, he hauled in the game-deciding interception on a Tony Romo pass to seal the Broncos' 51-48 shootout victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Now that he has reached football's biggest stage, Trevathan will be tasked with containing Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who charges forward with the headlong determination of a Pamplona bull, particularly in the playoffs. Trevathan will have to maintain rigorous discipline to keep Lynch from busting any long runs to the outside.
The excellently named Duke Ihenacho will also need to be wide awake at safety in the middle. If Lynch makes it past Trevathan and the linebackers to the second level of the defense and gets a safety isolated in the open field, it could be just Ihenacho standing between Seattle and full-fledged "Beast Mode."
Zach Miller, Tight End, Seahawks
The Broncos allowed opposing tight ends to haul in 82 receptions for 1,043 yards this season. While they were fairly stingy around the end zone in limiting TEs to six touchdowns (compared to a wretched 16 TDs for the Arizona Cardinals), that yardage total was the third highest in the league.
Zach Miller never had more than five catches in a game this year and saw more than five targets only twice. In Seattle, Miller has not approached the numbers he put up in four years with the Oakland Raiders, averaging 56.5 catches and 678 yards per season.
That is precisely what makes him the perfect candidate to win the roulette that is the Seahawks' passing game. While he may not find the end zone, hitting around 50 yards on four catches would be a serious boon on the game's biggest stage.
Which player will have the biggest impact?
Jermaine Kearse caught Seattle's lone TD in the NFC title game, but with Percy Harvin cleared to play from his concussion, that will significantly impact the targets for all wideouts not named Golden Tate or Doug Baldwin. Miller could well become the Kearse of Super Bowl XLVIII.
Chris Clark, Left Tackle, Broncos
If Peyton Manning is not rushed and has all the time he needs in the pocket, not even the vaunted "Legion of Boom" will be able to defeat him.
On many of Manning's dropbacks this season, he has been able to loiter in the pocket like a man casually waiting for a bus. He was sacked a league-low 20 times this season, and a big reason for that was the stellar play of left tackle Chris Clark.
Nobody gets less credit/less publicity, but has had more of a positive impact in '13, then OT Chris Clark has had for the #Broncos— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) January 26, 2014
Denver was dealt a devastating blow when it lost starting tackle and three-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady (foot) for the season. Clark stepped in and did a magnificent job of protecting Manning's blind side.
For a 37-year-old QB who has undergone multiple neck surgeries, poor blocking or a missed assignment could have spelled disaster for Denver's season, but the O-line kept Manning's uniform clean on the way to the Super Bowl.
Clark's performance against Seattle's fearsome defense will help set the tone for Denver, and any hiccup against the likes of pass-rushers Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril could have disastrous consequences.