A handful of NFL superstars—Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch among them—might steal the spotlight this week leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII (6:25 p.m. ET, Fox) between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.
Yet while those team celebrities will be spotted regularly on televisions and billboards in anticipation of the big game, history indicates they won’t be the only ones impacting the outcome with big plays.
From Max McGee’s two receiving touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I to Jacoby Jones’ two-touchdown performance for the Baltimore Ravens in last year’s game, every Super Bowl has had X-factors. With key on-field achievements that put their teams in position to win, role players can achieve instant fame on football's biggest stage.
The game-changer could truly be anyone active for Sunday’s game—just look at previously unheralded David Tyree and his memorable jump-ball catch in Super Bowl XLII—but there are a number of role players on each team who could swing the game if their opponents are unprepared.
Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
There might not be anyone in the NFL who better fits the “X-factor” description than a healthy Percy Harvin.
Unfortunately for Seattle, Harvin has spent far more time on the sidelines than he has on the field this season. Plagued all year by a hip injury, Harvin saw the field for just 20 snaps against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11, his only appearance of the regular season. He returned for Seattle’s first playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, but a first-half concussion knocked him out of the rest of that game and the NFC Championship Game.
It is quite possible that none of that will hinder him in the Super Bowl. Harvin has been cleared to play Sunday.
His nightmarish season could actually prove advantageous to the Seahawks. As he has yet to play a full game in his first season with Seattle, the Broncos will be left guessing how Harvin will be used in the Seahawks offense.
“Even though he’s going through injuries, you can’t let that fool you,” Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said Tuesday, according to Chris McCosky of The Detroit News. “It’s hard to prepare for him because you don’t have much film on him. You have to go back and look at what he did before.”
What Denver and everyone else should know is how electrifying Harvin can be with the ball in his hands. If the Seahawks feel confident in Harvin’s health and conditioning, expect them to utilize him as not only a receiver but also as a runner and returner.
In just 19 snaps against the Saints, Harvin caught three passes for 21 yards and had a nine-yard run. In his game against the Vikings, he had a 58-yard kickoff return and a bobbling 17-yard reception.
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
Passing the ball against the Seattle Seahawks, whose defense led the NFL by stifling opponents to just 172 passing yards per game this season, hasn’t been easy for anyone. If there is a team that can make that unit look vincible, it is the Denver Broncos, who led the NFL with 340.3 passing yards per game this season.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos will look to utilize their strength in numbers—with three wide receivers and one tight end who all had at least 65 catches, 775 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns this season—and try to create holes in a defense that has been airtight against most opponents this year.
Eric Decker might be the best option to do that.
The Seahawks will likely utilize Richard Sherman to take away Denver’s No. 1 wideout, Demaryius Thomas. That could leave Decker, who is often additionally overshadowed by tight end Julius Thomas and slot receiver Wes Welker, with the single-coverage matchups he regularly exposes for big plays.
Decker doesn’t have the size/speed combination of either Thomas or the quickness of Welker, but he is a strong, physical wideout who runs good routes and tracks the ball well in the air. This season, he has led the Broncos in receiving seven times and has 11 catches of 30 or more yards.
Decker also brings playmaking potential to this game as a punt returner, a role he has taken over this postseason. While his most memorable punt return this postseason lives in infamy as he tripped over his own feet with a clear path in front of him, it shouldn't be overlooked that he had himself in position for what would have been a 77-yard touchdown return by making multiple defenders miss.
Trindon Holliday, KR, Denver Broncos
Another player with the potential to change the game in one return is Trindon Holliday.
After losing his punt return duties to Decker, Holliday’s role is likely to be limited to returning kickoffs Sunday. That doesn’t mean the Seahawks can take playing him lightly. One of the fastest players in the NFL, Holliday is a threat to score six any time he gets a lane.
Including his two-touchdown day as a kickoff and punt returner in Denver’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last year, Holliday has six career return touchdowns, three of which have come on kickoffs.
His 105-yard kickoff return touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles tied for the third-longest in the NFL this season, while his 27.7 yards per kickoff return average was the league’s sixth-best.
Super Bowl kickoff return touchdowns haven’t always led to victories, but they typically create a momentum swing in the game. Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka will likely attempt to kick the ball through the end zone or away from Holliday, but when Holliday does get chances to return the ball, Seattle’s coverage unit needs to be on its toes.
K.J. Wright, OLB, Seattle Seahawks
Harvin isn’t the only key Seahawks player coming back from injury in this contest. Weak-side linebacker K.J. Wright, who played off the bench in the NFC Championship Game but has not played a full game since injuring his foot in Week 14, could be a key player for the Seattle defense Sunday.
Going up against the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense, Seattle needs Wright, its best coverage linebacker, to be healthy and perform well. Wright might often be tasked with covering Julius Thomas, one of the league’s most talented downfield receiving tight ends, as Seattle’s secondary will also have to account for wide receiver playmakers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and occasionally Andre Caldwell.
Wright should be capable of the assignment of covering Julius Thomas, as he has taken on those responsibilities at times against some of the league’s other top tight ends, including Jimmy Graham when the Seahawks played the Saints in Week 13. If Wright can succeed in that capacity in the Super Bowl, it will help Seattle continue its pass defense dominance.
Wright’s play will also be key in run defense. The Seahawks might not be able to stifle Manning and the Broncos' receivers the way they have stopped most passing offenses this season, but their best chance at defensive success will be if Wright and his fellow linebackers can rally to the football and slow down Broncos running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball on the ground.
Assuming the two weeks since the NFC Championship Game have been enough for Wright to get back to full strength, expect him to be an every-down player in Sunday’s contest. His success or failure in important roles could be a significant factor in whether the Seahawks hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos, and Danny Trevathan, LB, Denver Broncos
In the past four weeks, the Denver Broncos have lost arguably their top two defensive players, strong-side linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris, to season-ending injuries. That hasn’t stopped the Broncos from playing their best defensive football of the season in that four-week span.
Denver has held its opponents to fewer than 20 points and 100 rushing yards, and no more than 320 total yards of offense, in its last four games. That’s not to say the Broncos haven’t missed Miller and Harris, but it indicates that other players on the defense have stepped up, especially in rushing defense.
Which potential X-factor will have the biggest impact on Sunday's game?
Two of the players who have led Denver’s late-season defensive surge have been defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan. This was especially true against the New England Patriots, a game in which Trevathan had eight total tackles and Knighton had two tackles for loss among four total tackles.
Knighton has made a major difference on the Broncos defensive line in his first season with the team. Showing both quickness and power, Knighton has been the team’s top penetrator inside while consistently holding his own as a run-stopper.
Trevathan, meanwhile, has been the leading tackler and most productive defender on a unit whose play has far exceeded its name recognition. The instinctive second-year linebacker can make plays both straight up the middle and pursuing outside.
The Broncos proved their ability to shut down a power running offense when they held the Patriots, who had accumulated more than 500 combined rushing yards in their previous two games, to just 64 on the game. Knighton, Trevathan and Co. will need to play especially well Sunday, however, as they go up against arguably the NFL’s best power running back, Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch.
Denver’s chances to win Sunday’s game will be much better if it can stop Lynch from celebrating touchdowns with Skittles and force Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to make big plays passing the ball. Knighton and Trevathan might not be household names, but watch for them to play a crucial role in that Broncos defensive effort.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.