All the hype is past. All the media is done. It's finally time to play Super Bowl XLVIII.
You won't see Steve Antonopulos on the podium or Donald Rich on the Jumbotron, but they and their staffs have been big reasons why their respective teams are there. (Quick, Broncos and Seahawks fans—could you name your athletic trainers?)
With two weeks off to heal up (and talk some smack), the teams should be as healthy as they've been all season. There are players left behind. Von Miller or Sidney Rice might change the outcome of the game for either team, but they're not here, along with several others.
The medical staffs have done their best to heal, rehab and prevent all season long, but only one of them will get a ring along with the rest of the team. They won't go to Disneyland. They won't get much TV time if things go well. For each and every one of them, their satisfaction is in seeing their players able to play at the best of their abilities, overcoming injuries.
This game will probably be decided on the field, as it should be. Of course, there are some injury questions heading into the big game, so let's take a look at the important ones.
Percy Harvin is as big an X-factor as we've had in the Super Bowl in years. Seattle brought him in to be a game-changer and to extend the field like Russell Wilson extends plays, but his preseason hip surgery has kept him on the sidelines far more than expected.
In Harvin's two short stints back on the field, he hasn't shown that the hip is healthy. He's shown straight-line speed and some burst, but none of the lateral motion that makes him so difficult to cover. He also hasn't been on the field long enough for us to know if his hip deteriorates in-game. Of course, there's no worry about playing in back-to-back games, so he can go as close to all out as the hip will allow.
There have been no indications on how close Harvin is to full-go in this week's practices. Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the pool reporter watching Seattle's practices, watched Harvin closely, so this is likely by design. His motion and double moves will be watched early, but I'm more curious about his lateral motion. As Harvin showed, he can be teed up easily if he can't dodge defenders.
The concussion is clear, however. While Harvin didn't come back in time for the NFC Championship Game, he was cleared and has had no issues in practice. He also didn't show any problems with the bright flashing lights of the media, which is almost as telling.
Watch for any lateral motion, double moves or quick stops by Harvin early in the game as a sign of just how healthy the hip is. The Broncos will have to cover him and adjust quickly if he shows his old physicality.
Knowshon Moreno's chest bruise should not be a major factor. While painful, bruises tend to clear up quickly, and at worst, the Broncos medical staff should be able to give him additional padding.
There are rumors that Moreno may be wearing special padding, such as EvoShield or Unequal, which some have taken to mean this is a rib problem. These types of pads can be shaped to protect almost anything on the torso, so if true, it may just be a precaution.
Watch to see if Moreno is able to take hits head-on. He may be reluctant at first, which would be a negative sign. He is important not just in the running game but also as the back Peyton Manning clearly trusts in protection. Manning could shift to using Moreno in passing situations if the chest is a real problem.
Moreno and the Broncos can adjust in many ways and have likely prepared several scenarios, so be prepared for any of them. One other sign to see is if the Broncos run him more off-tackle, where he can keep his shoulders tilted and take hits higher or lower.
The hometown hero Moreno knows he's playing for not just a ring, but for a contract. After coming back from a devastating knee injury, a bruised chest won't hold him back much.
Say what you want about the Riddell 360 that Wes Welker is wearing. Yes, it looks big, but he has stayed concussion-free since returning. Oh yeah, it's the same exact model of helmet that Knowshon Moreno and more than 20 other players around the league wear, all without the bobblehead jokes. I kept waiting for someone to ask about the size, but I guess that's a hard question.
Welker has gone nearly a month since his concussion with two games and no recurrences. The Broncos were able to be very conservative with his return and have weapons enough to handle missing him for a time.
That said, there's no one in the game exactly like Welker, and having him underneath opens up things in the middle and deep. Having four or five weapons on the field at all times is one of the reasons Manning can pick apart defenses.
Welker showed he wasn't scared of hits or giving hits in the AFC Championship. He played his normal sets, ran his normal routes and came through with the win. The regrettable injury to Aqib Talib is dirty or not depending on whether you're dressed in orange or blue, but it showed that Welker likely isn't thinking too much about concussions.
I hate the word tweak. Sprains and strains might be confusing, but they're precise. Teaching people that a sprain is a tear might end up my life's mission. "Just a sprain!" No, pal.
Demaryius Thomas has a calf strain that has given him some issues and perhaps caused a cascade to a knee injury. He was never really tested in Denver's win two weeks ago, missing out on the physical push of Aqib Talib.
Thomas is a big weapon, especially in the screen game. The brilliant Greg Cosell broke down just how this worked in his article at Yahoo, but note the acceleration and cuts. Thomas can't do that if he's held back by a calf that's weak or a knee that's unstable. There's just no sign that it's an issue for him right now, and that's before a couple weeks of healing.
Thomas showed no signs of problems in games or in practice this week. He could be a big problem for Richard Sherman and the Seahawks defense on Sunday.
It was Peyton Manning's legs, not his neck and shoulders, that were the biggest physical issues for him this season.
It was most noticeable in the Indianapolis game after Robert Mathis knocked his former teammate around a bit. Manning played through a high ankle sprain, an ankle sprain and a foot injury that left his foot both swollen and bruised.
The Broncos bowed up and kept him almost untouched against Kansas City and continued to realize that keeping Manning upright was their best path to victory. Getting the bye week earlier and now the two weeks between games has really helped Manning heal up.
Sources tell me that Manning is as close to healthy as he's been all season and that he needs little or no special attention. He will play with his ankle brace as a precaution and has been wearing it in practice. Manning isn't that mobile to begin with, so this isn't really an issue as long as he can push off.
Watch to see if Manning is able to get normal push. The Seahawks may try to push up the middle to make him move laterally, but that's tougher given the strength of the Broncos' screen game. Manning's ankle shouldn't end up being an issue for either team.
Mike Freeman's report aside, Manning has had no issues at all with his neck since returning to play. He had no issues last year, though he has said that he got more arm strength back both in-season and in this offseason. That's common for a player after nerve issues like Manning had.
The neck itself is stable. In fact, it's more stable than most necks. Manning's fixation, done with titanium rods and screws by one of the top spinal surgeons in the world, has had no complications at all. The exam he'll have in March is by design, one that would give the Broncos an out if Manning's recovery hadn't been so successful.
Manning's neck is healthy, and if he walks away from the game John Elway-style, he'll do so because he chose to, not because injury forced him out.
There are no major concerns on either side. Marshawn Lynch and Doug Baldwin have all practiced in full. Lynch is as healthy as he's been all season, which is impressive given his physical running style. Baldwin has a hip pointer, which can be painful, but it has caused him no issues in practice.
“Everybody is fine,” coach Pete Carroll said of the Seahawks, according to Pro Football Talk, relaying a report from pool reporter Jenny Vrentas of SI.com. “No issues at all. ... We’re very fortunate in that sense.”
For the Broncos, Champ Bailey is relatively healthy but will be tested, especially by the scrambles that Russell Wilson can put together. Bailey's able to technique his way past physical limitations, but chasing a wide receiver around can expose his foot problem. He'll be featured more with Chris Harris out after his ACL sprain.
The cold isn't going to be bad, and as has been pointed out over and over, it's not a major problem for teams. Extreme cold or snow might have been more of an issue, but the game got a relative break given the doom and gloom of this polar vortex winter pairing up with an outdoor stadium.
All in all, the Broncos and Seahawks should decide this game on the field, with most of their best players at or near full-go. That's the reason the NFL has the two-week break—that and the never-ending hype!—and in this case, it's worked.