At any point of a football game, there are 22 players on the field looking to make an impact. However, Super Bowl XLVIII will feature one or two men on each side who are more important than the others.
The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are clearly the two best teams in the NFL and are extremely evenly matched. This puts the pressure on each person to win his individual matchup to help out the team on every play.
Obviously, there is plenty of talent everywhere on the field, but these elite players going head-to-head will truly decide the contest.
CB Richard Sherman vs. WR Demaryius Thomas
When you have a Pro Bowl receiver against a Pro Bowl cornerback, it does not get much better than that.
Demaryius Thomas did a great job of describing the possibility, via Clifton Brown of CSN, "It will be a physical matchup, because we’re both competitors. If it happens to be me and him going against each other, it will probably be one of the best ever."
Although Thomas will likely move around within the offense, the times he lines up across from Richard Sherman will be a show. The Seahawks made an infographic to show how talented this pair has been this year:
Thomas has the size and speed to cause matchup problems for almost any receiver, but he will have a hard time with Sherman due to the cornerback's ability to jam at the line of scrimmage. He is used to getting free releases off the line, leading to big plays down the field. Unfortunately, this will not be available in the Super Bowl.
Few opposing players have been able to do that lately as Thomas has totaled 424 yards and five touchdowns in his last four games. However, Sherman's physicality (if he does not get called for holding) will prevent a big day in one-on-one battles.
The Broncos will have to be more creative to get their big man going in this matchup.
OT Russell Okung vs. DE Shaun Phillips
After reaching the Pro Bowl a year ago, injuries limited Russell Okung to only eight starts in the regular season. The good news is he now appears healthy and ready to protect Russell Wilson's blind side in the Super Bowl.
His offensive line coach, Tom Cable, had a lot of nice things to say about him, per Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman:
You're talking about an athlete that's very powerful. He can win a one-on-one battle.
He had a terrific, terrific year last year. Healthy the entire time. I think that's who he is. When he's healthy he's one of the very best in the game.
Of course, he will have a tough task against Shaun Phillips, who is turning out to be one of the best offseason additions on the Broncos. The free agent joined Denver after Elvis Dumervil left to go to the Baltimore Ravens, and he has been outstanding with 10 sacks on the year.
The defensive end's pressure has helped balance out the defense, which has now gone four games in a row without allowing more than 20 points.
He will now be tasked with not only creating pressure for Wilson but bringing him down. As mobile as he is, the quarterback was sacked 44 times this year, tied for third most in the NFL. Phillips has to add to his postseason total with a few more big plays in the Super Bowl.
Okung has the talent to prevent this from happening, but he has to be ready for a tough battle.
QB Peyton Manning vs. FS Earl Thomas
Peyton Manning has beaten some good safeties in his career—especially this season. It is not an accident that the future Hall of Famer set records for the most passing yards and touchdowns in a season.
Manning has the ability to beat a defense not only with his arm, but also with his intelligence. He prepares for virtually every situation and finds the best mismatch on the field to exploit it.
However, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is not intimidated:
More importantly, he also has the talent to succeed in this matchup. Thomas has the speed to cover a lot of ground in the secondary, as well as instincts to know where the ball is going. If Manning is not precise with his passes, they will get picked off.
Still, the likely MVP is not going to go down easily. Manning will use a lot of short passes to Wes Welker and Julius Thomas to move the football without risking turnovers.
This will be a mental battle as much as it is physical, but the winner will likely raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the day.
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