Where Super Bowl XLVIII Will Be Won or Lost

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIJanuary 30, 2014

There won’t be many mismatches for either team to exploit in Super Bowl XLVIII. Set to be played Sunday (6:25 p.m. ET, Fox) between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks—the only two NFL teams to lose just three games this season—winning this year’s league championship will require Grade-A execution from the victor.

Some of the teams' strengths (Denver's passing offense vs. Seattle's passing defense) and areas of concern (Seahawks wide receivers vs. Broncos defensive backs) will clash against one another, but which players, matchups and factors will play the biggest role in determining Sunday's outcome?


The Quarterbacks

If there is one matchup to decide Sunday’s game, it’s Peyton Manning vs. Russell Wilson. It is very likely that the final score will correlate with which quarterback had a stronger performance.

The NFL is said to have become a “quarterback league,” and Sunday’s matchup exemplifies that notion. While Manning is the greatest signal-caller of his generation and a sure bet to be this year’s NFL MVP, Wilson has already established himself as one of the league’s biggest superstars just two seasons into his career.

Wilson didn’t put up the gaudy numbers this season that Manning did, and the stretch run of his season came with some bumps in the road, but there is no reason to doubt his ability to make plays on the biggest stage.

A rocket-armed, athletic dual threat who makes big throws both from the pocket and on the run, Wilson plays with the poise and leadership of a veteran well beyond his years.

Manning, on the other hand, is 37 years old yet looking to cap what could go down as not only the greatest season of his football career but also the greatest season by a quarterback of all time.

Having already broken the league’s all-time single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, Manning is now looking to become the 12th quarterback in Super Bowl history to win two rings.

Manning has already cemented his place among the all-time greats, while Wilson is looking to become the star of a generation, but neither age nor history will matter Sunday.

Both quarterbacks will require two weeks of heavy game-planning from opposing defenses, yet both of them should have no problem reading those defensive game plans and making plays on the biggest stage.


Away from Richard Sherman

Sherman might have made some enemies by saying he was the “best corner in the game” in his now-infamous postgame interview following the NFC Championship Game, but it’s not as if he was making a claim his play couldn’t back up.

Even though quarterbacks threw at him just 58 times, the fewest of any NFL cornerback to play 1,000 or more snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Sherman still led the NFL with eight regular-season interceptions.

It is more likely the former statistic than the latter, however, that will translate to Sunday’s game. With an arsenal of receiving weapons that includes four players who had at least 65 receptions, 775 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns this season, Manning should know better than to try force passes against Sherman’s coverage.

If the 6’3”, 195-pound Stanford product plays up to his usual standards, Sherman will likely lock down whatever opponents he faces in Sunday's game.

Even if Sherman matches up against and shuts down Denver’s leading receiver, Demaryius Thomas, that in itself won’t be enough for Seattle’s No. 1-ranked pass defense to shut down Denver’s No. 1-ranked pass offense.

By The Numbers: Peyton Manning vs. Russell Wilson 2013 Stats
QBCompletion %Passing YardsPassing TD / INTRushing Yards
Manning68.35,47755 / 10-31
Wilson63.13,35726 / 9539

Manning, arguably the smartest quarterback in the game, isn’t going to fall into the trap of testing Sherman (unless Sherman legitimately gets beat). Instead, Manning should look to exploit other areas of the field by going to No. 2 wideout Eric Decker, slot receiver Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno out of the backfield.

That’s not to say Demaryius Thomas won’t be part of the game plan; expect the Broncos to move him around in an effort to get him more favorable matchups.

What it should mean is that the Super Bowl isn’t going to be won or lost based on what Sherman does or doesn’t do, but rather on how well the rest of the Seahawks defense fares against the league’s most explosive offense.

Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have been fantastic all season and should be up to the task of making plays against the Denver air attack.

The pressure will be on players like cornerback Byron Maxwell, slot corner Walter Thurmond and weak-side linebacker K.J. Wright, however, to perform at their best against a team that should challenge the Seattle defense to an extent no prior opponent has this year.


Denver Rushing Defense vs. Marshawn Lynch

While the Seahawks will likely look to Wilson to make plays in the event of a close game, the ideal four-quarter game plan for the Seattle offense is one in which it can run the ball with consistency to set up downfield passing opportunities.

The Seahawks have been successful in doing so in their first two playoff games, thanks to the success of running back Marshawn Lynch.

While the media covering the Super Bowl have been kept in a constant state of flux with whether Lynch will show up at scheduled media appearances and cooperate once he gets there, there is little doubt that his on-field performance will play a key role in Sunday’s outcome. It certainly has in Seattle’s two playoff wins thus far, games in which he has rushed for a combined 249 yards on 50 carries.

He will face a serious test Sunday, however, from a Broncos defense that has finished its season strong against the run. Denver has held each of its last four opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing and just 64 or 65 yards on the ground in each of its last three games.

The Broncos defense lacks star power, and it ranked just 19th in the NFL in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense this season. Yet despite season-ending injuries to arguably the unit’s two best players, strong-side linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris, Denver goes into Sunday’s game playing its best football of the year on defense.

If the Denver defense can continue its strong run and keep Lynch even close to as quiet as he has been in front of the microphones this week, the Broncos’ odds of winning the championship will increase significantly.


Kickoff Returns

It’s easy to overlook special teams in a game featuring the league’s No. 1-ranked offense (Denver) and No. 1-ranked defense (Seattle), but that would be a mistake.

While it’s dangerous to take anything for granted on the game’s biggest stage, expect the place-kickers to be solid. Denver’s Matt Prater (25-of-26) and Seattle’s Steven Hauschka (33-of-35) had the NFL’s two best regular-season field-goal percentages this year.

The punters haven’t been as great—Denver’s Britton Colquitt and Seattle’s Jon Ryan both rank among the bottom of NFL punters in yards per punt and net punting average—but the Broncos allowed just 274 punt-return yards this regular season, while the Seahawks only gave up 82, a dominant mark topped by only the St. Louis Rams.

The area that projects dangerously to both teams, however, is kickoff-return coverage.

The Broncos allowed a league-worst average of 29.3 yards per kickoff return this season, and the Seahawks just might have Percy Harvin back deep returning kickoffs. Though Harvin has yet to play a full game this season due to injuries, he is cleared to play Sunday.

When healthy, Harvin is one of the NFL’s most dynamic players with the ball in his hands. He gained 58 yards on his lone kickoff return this season.

The Seahawks have only allowed 24 yards per kickoff return and no returns longer than 40 yards, but they haven’t faced many returners this season as dynamic as Denver’s Trindon Holliday. Holliday has four total return touchdowns over the past two seasons and ranked sixth in the NFL this year with 27.7 yards per kickoff return.

Special teams might not get many of the headlines leading up to the game, but should anyone break out a big kickoff return during the game, it could play a big role in setting up the game’s eventual outcome.


Turnovers and Penalties

A team that wins the turnover battle and commits less penalties than its opponent tends to win much more often than not, but the importance of these factors is amplified when the NFL’s two best teams battle.

Each of the last five Super Bowls has been won by the team that committed fewer turnovers, and only three teams have won a Super Bowl with more turnovers than their opponent, most recently when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in 2006. Additionally, six of the last eight Super Bowls have been won by teams flagged for fewer penalties than their opponents.

In a game full of dynamic playmakers on offense, defense and special teams, both the Seahawks and Broncos will have little room for error Sunday. It won’t necessarily be decided by turnovers and penalties if both teams execute at a high level, but the championship almost certainly won’t be won by a mistake-prone team.


Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.


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