Here's the matchup every football fan is drooling over: Peyton Manning and the Broncos receivers against Richard Sherman and the Seahawks pass defense.
We know Manning is one of the best of all time; he and his Broncos have put up more points per game than anyone since Norm Van Brocklin's 1950 Los Angeles Rams, per NFL Media's Elliot Harrison.
Just how good, though, is the Seahawks defense? I recently compared the "Legion of Boom" secondary and pass-rush-by-committee front seven to the best defenses of the modern era, and found that the Seahawks stand shoulder-to-shoulder with defenses like the mid-2000s Ravens, the 2002 Buccaneers and the 1991 Saints.
The Broncos and Seahawks are such an intriguing matchup because it's not just offense against defense, it's specific strength against strength. NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland looked at whether the Legion of Boom is built to shut down the Broncos' four-option passing attack.
Cornerback Richard Sherman has gotten a lot of attention lately; Langland also looked at whether Sherman's game-film clips match his press clippings. His size, verticality, short-area burst and strong mental game make him an intimidating matchup, even for a big receiver like the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas.
NFL head coaches rarely bother butting heads against an opponent's strength. As San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick found out in the NFC Championship Game, testing Sherman one too many times will get you killed.
The real battle will be between targets like Broncos receivers Eric Decker and Wes Welker, and Seattle cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond. The Seahawks love to use first-team All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas as the "center fielder" in a single-high zone, while the cornerbacks press receivers at the line and strong safety Kam Chancellor sneaks up to support the run game.
AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen went to the film to break down how Thomas, Decker and Welker have attacked similar press coverages this season, and concluded they've got more than a few tricks up their sleeve.
Welker, as I wrote this week, has an interesting combination of storylines related to this game, and perhaps the best opportunity to sneak between the levels of the Seahawks defense and do real damage.
Of course, the Broncos greatest threat is their quarterback. Manning famously uses plenty of pre-snap calls and audibles to adjust protections and routes in reaction to what looks defenses present.
Hansen looked beyond "Omaha," one of Manning's most-barked line calls, to reveal how he disguises and switches up those concepts. Featured Columnist Cian Fahey took a deep dive into the Broncos film, dissecting those passing concepts and how they can pick apart even the stoutest of secondaries.
Getting less attention, but no less important, is another strength-versus-strength matchup: the Seahawks pass rush against the Broncos pass protection.
The Seahawks pass rush, as Langland wrote, is the real X-factor in Super Bowl XLVIII. Defensive ends Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons combined for 23 sacks, 35 quarterback hits and 95 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Seahawks' sack rate of 7.7 percent, per Pro-Football-Reference, was fifth-best in the NFL, despite not relying on excessive blitzing to bring the heat.
With Broncos franchise left tackle Ryan Clady lost for the season to a Lisfranc injury back in September, Hansen wrote that the Broncos' best pass protector might be Manning himself.
With quick, decisive reads, savvy pocket management and better-than-you-think feet, he's the least-sacked quarterback in the NFL. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Manning was sacked on just 2.7 percent of his dropbacks—far better, even, than second-best Matthew Stafford's 3.5 percent.
Avril and company will surely make Manning sweat, but will they be able to get to him often enough to gain the upper hand?
Lost in all this talk is the Broncos run game, featuring versatile tailback Knowshon Moreno in committee with power back Montee Ball and change-of-pace guy Ronnie Hillman.
As Featured Columnist B.J. Kissel wrote, Moreno's flying under the radar as a game-changing weapon. Whether bouncing inside runs outside, cutting outside runs back inside, or catching balls in space, Moreno will attack the edges of the Seahawks defense.
Of course, as NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman wrote, the key to this matchup isn't any of these players, or even the coaches drawing up the schemes.
It's referee Terry McAulay, and the crew of officials who'll be patrolling the MetLife Stadium grounds on February 2.
The Legion of Boom does a lot of their damage with extremely physical play. They test the boundaries of defensive holding, pass interference and illegal contact early and often; how early and how often the yellow hankies come out in response will have a massive impact on how open the Broncos receivers get—and how many points the Broncos score.