NEW YORK — The most important factor in Super Bowl XLVIII isn't Peyton Manning. Not even close.
The most vital man in this coming Super Bowl would probably need a sundial to get timed in the 40. He's a nerd, a computer science major from LSU. He's been described to me as quiet, highly efficient and respected by other officials. He was also part of a moment that caused a near-riot.
That man is referee Terry McAulay. He's the most under-covered story this week but the most important one. McAulay will set the tone for this crew, and then both will set the tone for a critical aspect of the game: Denver's wide receiving corps against Seattle's secondary.
During the regular season, McAulay and his crew (which is different from the crew working the Super Bowl) generally—emphasis on generally—let the physical stuff go. Now, for the Super Bowl, McAulay will be working with an All-Star group. But, again, the referee sets the tone.
If McAulay lets the Seattle secondary do its usual amount of grabbing and play with its standard physicality, Seattle wins. If the game is called tightly and the Seahawks are penalized for their physical ways, the Broncos will win. It's really that simple.
The Seahawks aren't the most physical team in football. They aren't the grabbiest. But they are the best at combining their physicality and intelligence into a formidable cauldron of violence and IQ.
This was exemplified in the NFC title game, when officials let the Seahawks ball and they Clubber Lang'd the 49ers receivers all over the field. Colin Kaepernick was held to his lowest passing production in San Francisco's postseason and threw two interceptions.
This group could end up as one of the hardest hitting in recent NFL history. The outcome of this game will be determined by if they are allowed to continue that style of play.
You can bet that both teams have called the league preemptively to make their points. The Broncos are telling the NFL that Seattle holds and cheats. The Seahawks are telling the league that the pick plays Denver runs are dangerous to player safety and should be flagged. Then, in pregame warmups, when the refs are on the field, they themselves will be lobbied by the teams.
The Seahawks love their physical style of play. It defines them. They thrive off it.
"The style that we play has gained notoriety because of the physical nature of the players," coach Pete Carroll said. "Going back to Brandon (Browner), when he played, and when Sherm (Richard Sherman) emerged on the scene, those guys had to work their way up.
"They worked their way in through the program and became somewhat of—or I guess they received the recognition for their style. When you add Kam (Chancellor) to that, who’s a monster back there making his plays and making his hits, and also the effective play that Earl (Thomas) brings that’s extraordinary from the free safety spot, it’s just a really all-encompassing group.
"As far as the rules, we don’t want to break any rule, we don’t want to do anything in that regard, we don’t want penalties, we don’t want any of them. The style of our play, we’re so constant with the technique, that we’re there, we’re on players and we’re going to play them physically from the moment they leave the line of scrimmage, until the play is over.
"That’s all, and that’s it; the last thing we want to do is be penalized because we’re just giving away yards. We work very hard to stay with that. So any opinion of that is I think somebody trying to figure out a way to beat us, and they see that there are some issues there that they’d like to point out other aspects of it to try to generate that maybe we’re stretching the rules. We’re not, we’re just trying to play great technique and play the style that our guys are capable of playing.”
"You know, it’s not a bad-boy image," said Chancellor. "We don’t look at it like that. We just are a physical bunch. We like to be physical. We like to be hands-on. We like to make you feel our presence, and that’s how we operate.”
It's difficult to tell how the game will be called. Part of the problem is that McAulay will be working with a new crew. However, there are hints.
McAulay was the referee for the Saints-Seahawks divisional-round game. Seattle defensive backs were extremely physical with the Saints (they totally punk'd Jimmy Graham), yet not one pass interference penalty was called on the secondary, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
Another hint the game could be officiated in favor of the Seahawks: McAulay and his crew averaged 11.25 penalties per game, via PFF, a tad fewer than the league average of 12.16. Not a huge difference, but it still fits with the notion that McAulay will try to stay out of the way.
This is McAulay's third Super Bowl; he was previously the ref in Super Bowls XXXIX and XLIII.
His reputation within the officiating community is solid. Outside of it, well, just don't mention him to fans in Cleveland. (He ended a 2001 game early between the Browns and Jaguars after fans hurled bottles toward the field after some dubious late-game officiating.)
Can Denver's running game be a factor? Of course, but there's no way the Broncos are going to run wild on that Seattle defense. No way.
It will come down to the passing game and the most important man on the field: McAulay.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.