Super Bowl Predictions 2014: Picking Winners of Key Positional Matchups

Alex EspinozaCorrespondent IIIFebruary 1, 2014

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 17:  Cornerback Richard Sherman #25 of the Seattle Seahawks tackles wide receiver Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos at CenturyLink Field on August 17, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The clock is ticking toward kickoff of Super Bowl XLVIII, when the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos will clash in an epic battle of strengths.

When looking at the individual matchups of the contest, there are many salivating duels set to take place between the Broncos' record-breaking offense and Seattle's stingy defense. That's not to say there aren't some interesting one-on-one battles set to take place when Russell Wilson is leading the charge for the Seahawks.

Here's a look at a trio of the most high-profile position matchups on tap for Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox) near New York City.

Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Date and Time: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET

TV: Fox

Live Stream: Fox Sports Go


Denver WR Demaryius Thomas vs. Seattle CB Richard Sherman

All eyes will be on these two premier talents whenever Peyton Manning has the ball.

Richard Sherman has become one of the game's top shutdown corners, as he has registered eight interceptions in each of the past two seasons.

In Demaryius Thomas, Manning has one of the most explosive playmakers in the game. Following his big regular season (92 catches, 1,430 yards, 14 touchdowns), Thomas has also showed up big in the playoffs, with a combined 15 receptions, 188 yards and two scores.

Both Thomas (6'3", 229 lbs) and Sherman (6'3", 195 lbs) bring size and physicality to this much-anticipated showdown on the perimeter, and both players are looking forward to the challenge.

It's been hard to contain Thomas so far this year, as he has been held under 50 yards just twice in 18 contests. But in both of those regular-season games, one against the New England Patriots and one against the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos lost.

If it can be done, Sherman can make it happen again. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick only threw toward Sherman twice during the NFC title game, but don't expect Manning to do the same with Thomas. Still, I don't see Thomas scoring a touchdown on Sherman or eclipsing the 100-yard mark, as the cornerback is just too big in the red zone and too opportunistic in the open field to allow much to happen.

Pick: Sherman


Seattle C Max Unger vs. Denver DT Terrance Knighton

In reality, blocking Terrance Knighton isn't a one-man job. They call him Pot Roast for a reason.

Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus analyzed Knighton's monumental impact on the Denver defense this season, especially against the run. Against a physical running attack like Seattle's, which features tough-nosed Marshawn Lynch, Knighton's play will come into focus again on Super Bowl Sunday.

Renner noted that Knighton lines up in his scheme as a 1-technique, meaning he's slightly shaded off the opposing center. As such, he often draws double-teams against guards, in this case Seattle's J.R. Sweezy and James Carpenter.

But the main responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Unger, who hasn't fared well recently, per Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus:

Up against the physical defensive fronts that the Saints and 49ers offer, Unger turned in two of his worst performances of the season, though they have gone unnoticed thanks to Marshawn Lynch engaging ‘beast mode’ and refusing to be taken down on first, second or even at times, third contact.

After struggling with the likes of Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins and Glenn Dorsey over the nose in the first two playoff games, things don’t get any easier for Unger facing the bang in form Terrance Knighton in the Super Bowl.

Whenever Lynch gets the ball between the tackles, expect the 6'3", 335-pound Pot Roast to be in the middle of the action.

Pick: Knighton


Denver WR Wes Welker vs. Seattle CB Walter Thurmond

For as much attention as Thomas versus Sherman has garnered, and deservedly so, this matchup between Wes Welker and Walter Thurmond in the slot could be just as important.

Thurmond may have stoked the fire a bit when he had some strong comments to say about Welker's hit on Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship Game that took him out of the contest.

"If you're intentionally coming at somebody, it's supposed to be a flag," Thurmond told reporters. "But they didn't throw the flag on him. Some players get away with a lot more than other players depending on status, but that's just the nature of the game."

Manning doesn't play favorites when he's on his game, distributing the ball all over the field. But with Sherman's shutdown skills and a talented, big-bodied Byron Maxwell occupying Seattle's other cornerback position, Manning could look to exploit Thurmond in the middle of the field.

Welker is a master of creating separation and finding soft spots in opposing defenses, and those skills will certainly be put to the test against the top-notch Seattle secondary, which will be without suspended starting corner Brandon Browner.

Quietly, Thurmond has proven to be a steady contributor for the Seahawks as their nickel corner, per Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus:

Thurmond has been targeted 53 times (including) the playoffs, giving up 34 receptions for just 252 yards. That works out at 7.4 yards per catch, the second-best mark among cornerbacks playing at least 25% of their team’s defensive snaps. More importantly, he’s yet to allow a touchdown this year while picking off one pass and breaking up four more. 

Still, it doesn't take much room for Welker to be effective, and I suspect he'll be able to do enough damage to help the Broncos to a victory.

Pick: Welker