Much like every Super Bowl, 2014’s contest between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks has had everyone focusing on the two teams’ stars, but it’s the overlooked players on each squad who will truly determine which team brings home the Lombardi Trophy.
Everyone knows how important Peyton Manning or Richard Sherman will be to the outcome of the game, and while they’ll undoubtedly make an impact, it’s the game’s lesser-known players who could really turn the tide.
Whether it was David Tyree for the New York Giants or Tracy Porter for the New Orleans Saints, there have always been unheralded stars who have shaped the course of the NFL’s biggest game.
Here are some X-factors who could end up turning the tables in Super Bowl 48.
Where: MetLife Stadium; East Rutherford, N.J.
Date and Time: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider (as of Feb. 1)
Over/Under: 48.5, per Vegas Insider (as of Feb. 1)
Denver’s Offensive Line
There are plenty of important players on Denver’s offense, but the one unit that could really make the biggest difference in the game is the Broncos offensive line.
Manning has had plenty of time to dissect defenses all season long, and Denver’s dominant line is a huge reason why.
The Broncos are tops in the league in just about every measurable offensive line stat; they’ve allowed the fewest sacks with just 20 on the year and the third-fewest quarterback hits with 54.
The bad news for Denver’s line is that Seattle will be a challenge unlike any other team it has faced this season.
The Seahawks were eighth in the league in sacks in the regular season and third in forced fumbles, and that success has carried over to the playoffs. Seattle’s only piled up three sacks, but the defense has already forced four fumbles.
All this means that Denver’s line will have a big task ahead of it, but if it can live up to the challenge, then Manning will have a much easier day throwing the ball.
Granted, he’ll still be taking on the league’s most formidable secondary, but doing it with time to throw will make all the difference.
When teams have been able to pressure Manning, his air of invincibility tends to fall away. If Seattle can replicate what the Pittsburgh Steelers did in 2006 when they took Manning down when he was at the peak of his powers—sacking him five different times in the game—it’ll have a chance to be successful.
But if Denver’s line performs the way it has all year, it'll have a much harder time of it.
The other side of the coin is that the Broncos could slow down the Seahawks’ pressure with a good running attack. The line has been key to their success on the ground, and although the Broncos were 15th in the league in rushing in the regular season, that success hasn’t really translated to the playoffs—they’re only averaging 120 yards per game in the postseason.
However, the disparity between the two teams when it comes to the run game isn’t as great as most would think, as Forbes’ Tommy Tomlinson writes.
If the weather does turn, Denver can run the ball now. Everybody thinks Seattle has a huge advantage at RB with Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch had 1,257 yards on 4.2 yards a carry. Denver’s Knowshon Moreno had 1,038 yards on 4.3 yards a carry.
Throw in receiving yards, and Moreno leads 1,586-1,573. I suspect every team in the NFL would take Lynch over Moreno. But this season, it’s basically a draw.
The line has been a huge reason for that success, and if it keeps it up in this game while also keeping Manning on his feet, the Broncos could very well win.
Everyone’s talking about Seattle’s defense, and with good reason, but its offense could be what determines its fortunes.
After all, even if the Seahawks can slow down the Broncos offense slightly, it seems inevitable that Manning will get at least some scoring done.
Denver averaged an otherworldly 37.9 points per game in the regular season, and even with its offense slightly held in check in the playoffs, it's still putting up 25 points per contest.
Suffice it to say that Seattle will have to score some points quickly at some point in this game, and the passing attack is the easiest way to do it.
Russell Wilson has been a little rocky this postseason, averaging just 148 yards through the air per game, but he’s been successful when he targets receiver Doug Baldwin.
Baldwin might be less famous than his compatriots at receiver, but he’s been fantastic in the team’s two playoff games. He has eight catches for 136 yards so far, averaging 17 yards per grab.
“He’s a great competitor,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told The Seattle Times' Jerry Brewer about Baldwin. “He’s got tremendous focus on battling and fighting and clawing and scratching. He comes through, and it works for him in really crucial moments.”
Denver has plenty of injury issues in the secondary, and that type of depth concern really shows up when the team has to put extra defensive backs on the field to cover guys like Baldwin.
If he can find some holes in the Broncos’ coverage the way he has against New Orleans and San Francisco, Wilson can help the Seahawks keep up with Manning.
The game’s going to be a close one, considering the talent on both teams.
However, Denver’s offensive line or a few big plays from Doug Baldwin could easily influence the outcome just enough to make a difference.
Either way, it’ll make this Super Bowl very compelling to watch.