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Who will win Super Bowl XLVIII? Making a case for each team to win Lombardi Trophy

The battle between Richard Sherman and Peyton Manning could be the deciding one in Super Bowl XLVIII. The battle between Richard Sherman and Peyton Manning could be the deciding one in Super Bowl XLVIII. (John Leyba/Getty Images)

This season's Super Bowl is that rare matchup of the conference's top seeds, and a battle between the NFL's No. 1 offense and the league's top-ranked defense. As a result, many are calling it a very close game -- even a push. We tend to agree... but since someone has to win this thing eventually, below are reasons each team has a chance to claim the Lombardi Trophy.

Five Reasons Seahawks Will Win

1. They'll find an antidote to Denver's Pot Roast recipe.

“They have a huge nose guard in Terrance Knighton. He’s a big boy. He has really done a nice job these past couple weeks. They’ve done a great job against the run, particularly in these last four weeks. It kind of comes down more to personnel than scheme.”

That's what Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this week of the Broncos' primary run-stopping defensive tackle, famously nicknamed "Pot Roast." Though he will occasionally break out and go all Vince Wilfork on a poor, unsuspecting quarterback (as he did to Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game with a sack), Knighton's primary responsibility is to make running backs think twice about shooting up the middle. That will apply to Marshawn Lynch in the Super Bowl, and because Lynch is such an outstanding inside runner, the face-off between Knighton and Lynch will set a scene for a Seahawks offensive advantage -- or not. Knighton may have the edge because Seattle's guards are average at best, and center Max Unger may not be fully equipped to handle a guy whose listed weight of 335 pounds can best be described as creative fiction.

In the 2013 regular season, Lynch ran for 272 of his 1,257 yards up the middle, and five of his 12 touchdowns came in that area. As Seattle's blockers started to trail off in performance late in the season, Lynch's numbers suffered correspondingly -- he failed to reach the 100-yard mark in each of Seattle's last six regular-season games. However, he turned that around in the playoffs with a 140-yard performance against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, and 109 yards against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

Basically, Seattle's offense revolves around Lynch. Quarterback Russell Wilson generally throws the fewest passes of any starting quarterback in the NFL, and the highest percentage of play-action passes. Some teams can fool defenses into play-action without a sustained run game, but Seattle isn't one of them. No Lynch, no Lombardi Trophy. And while Denver's defense has been pretty good against the run overall, it's averaged 119.5 rushing yards allowed in its last four games, including playoff wins over the Patriots and San Diego Chargers.

When asked Friday to identify the source of Denver's run-stopping prowess, the media-averse Lynch got right to the point. “What’s his name? Pot Roast. Big boy. They get to the ball. They run into the ball. They’re a good defense, that’s what I say.”

Seattle's run game had best be better, and recent history on both sides of the ball indicates that it can be.

2. They can move Peyton Manning off his optimal throwing spots.

Per Pro Football Focus' metrics, Peyton Manning was pressured just 22 percent of the time in the regular season, far below the NFL average of 36 percent (and far below Wilson's 43 percent). But when you do pressure Manning, good things happen for your defense and your team. And that's where the Seahawks must focus their efforts. They have that rare secondary that can lock down on Denver's talented receivers one-on-one ... but if Manning has enough time to find the inevitable openings, that great Seattle defense will get torched.

Needless to say, pressure on Manning was front of mind in the Seahawks' camp.

“It’s important," Pete Carroll said Tuesday. "Nobody has been able to do it. We’re going to do everything we can to get some pressure on him and it all works together. It isn’t just about one side of the backend, it’s everybody working together in coordination. Hopefully we’ll heat it up pretty good against him.”

Nobody has done it in the playoffs, to be sure. Manning hasn't been sacked once this postseason and has been pressured on just 13 percent of his passes. The Seahawks have a talented line with a lot of moveable players and hybrid schemes. It will be of paramount importance to throw Manning off-kilter, even without sacks, and Seattle's front seven has been a pressure machine all season.

3. They can counter Denver's pick plays with inside aggression, and play to the refs.

Bill Belichick was most unhappy about the pick play that Wes Welker ran against the Patriots in the AFC championship that put cornerback Aqib Talib out of the game. But what Belichick failed to mention in all his postgame faux outrage is that in that same contest, Welker tried to run another pick over the middle, and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower knocked Welker right on his ass.

How the Terry McAulay-led officiating crew calls this game could be a hidden big deal. The Broncos love to run rubs and picks out of their crossing route concepts to get opposing defenders out of place -- and out of sorts. The Seahawks love to get their hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage, allowing them to establish inside position on as many routes as possible, and especially to disrupt timing. That's a huge deal for a Manning-led Denver offense that lives on timing and rhythm. The Seahawks also led the league in penalties, and they embrace their reputation as an old-school, physical (some would say 'dirty') team. Officials generally let more things happen in the postseason, so it could be that the Broncos are allowed to run their picks, and the Seahawks will be allowed to respond to those concepts with severe physical authority.

"It'll be relative to both teams, and whatever it is, it is," Carroll said Thursday. "We have the best guys in the NFL calling this football game, the guys that have been ranked the highest and regarded the highest by the league and by all sources. We’re going to get the best job they can possibly turn out. This is a big day for them, too. Officiating the Super Bowl is a lifelong dream for them, as well. They're going to do a great job, and we're going to play the game accordingly. There are times when you have to adjust to how things are going, but we're not going to do anything differently."

We'll see how the zebras take Carroll's final comment. Broncos receiver Eric Decker knows just what's coming.

“In this league, it’s a very physical game,” Decker said Wednesday. “You see a lot of defenses, especially with the passing game becoming more prevalent, cornerbacks getting to the receiver at the line of scrimmage and at the top of routes. I think they do it well. They challenge teams and are the best at it in the NFL. As far as pushing the envelope, I wouldn’t say so much. I’d say they do as much as other teams do, even ourselves.”

4. Seattle can bring different coverage concepts to the fore throughout the game.

Against most quarterbacks, and for most secondaries, throwing a few disguises is a good idea. The more you can show different looks and get Mr. Quarterback thinking, all the better in the NFL's time-compressed world. Against Manning, throwing disguises his way is a necessity. Not only will he dissect any coverage you present the first time he sees it, but also he has a group of receivers big and fast enough to fight for open spots and take supreme advantage when those openings occur.

For Seattle's secondary, the challenge is a bit different. The Seahawks have all the talent and consistency required to take any receiver corps to the woodshed, but setting Manning up in any small way could be a huge factor. And as much as this team is known for playing a lot of man coverage and single-high zone, they have broken out a few more different looks this season. Advanced nickel coverages, safeties and linebackers in the flats, safeties and cornerbacks shifting positions pre-snap and heading to atypical spots when the play begins -- these are the things you can expect to see from Seattle against Manning.

"That’s going to call for everything we can think of -- every style of pressure, every rush that we can manage, the coverage change-ups, the disguises, the looks -- all of that to try to keep him [Manning] from being so efficient," Carroll said Monday. "There’s no easy answer. I wouldn’t tell you anyway, but it really is a great challenge for us and our players.”

This secondary is ready for that challenge -- and it is going to meet it with more than pure physical talent.

5. If they fall behind early, they've been there before.

In last season's divisional round, the Seahawks spotted the Atlanta Falcons a 20-0 lead at the half, on the road, and came very close to pulling the upset. In a Week 7 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, Seattle gave the Bucs a 21-0 second-quarter lead, and raced back to a 27-24 final in the franchise's greatest single-game comeback. In the title game against the 49ers, San Francisco had a 10-0 lead with fewer than six minutes left in the first half, but walked out of CenturyLink Field on the wrong end of a 23-17 result.

So, if the Broncos take their record-shattering offense to the end zone a couple of times early on and Seattle struggles to match point for point, it's not the end of the world. Somehow, the second-youngest team to ever appear in a Super Bowl understands that games are 60 minutes long, and anything can happen in that space of time.

“Being patient," Sherman said Tuesday, when asked the key to dealing with Manning and that offense, especially if it explodes out of the gate. "Being patient and understanding that he’s going to get his yards and he’s going to make his plays. He’s one of the best in the history. If you pull your hair out over every pass he completes and over every yard that he makes, then you’d have a long day ahead of you. Because he’s a great, elite quarterback and he’s going to make his yards, he’s going to make his plays and anytime that you get mad about things like that, you get angry, or you feel some type of way, then it will be hard for you to consistently play well.

"So our defense as a whole has to be patient and be able to overcome the adversity, and we’ve done so all season.”

If they can do it one more time, they'll have the victory that will define them forever.

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Five Reasons Broncos Will Win

1. Peyton Manning: Detractors for the future Hall of Famer will point to his 11 playoff losses and occasional struggles in cold weather as evidence that Manning is doomed this Sunday. But those conversation topics belie the fact that Manning just turned in the greatest statistical regular season ever for a QB. He has played at a high level all season -- motivated by the painful memory of last season's early playoff exit.

Manning did not slow down in Denver's first two playoff games, either: 57-of-79 passing for 630 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception.

"He’s confident, he’s comfortable," wide receiver Eric Decker said. "He trusts the guys around him and that’s all you can ask for in a quarterback that will lead you Sunday on the field."

Seattle's defense has done yeoman's work this season against the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Drew Brees -- the Saints offense under Brees, with its wide-open looks and pass-catching backs, may be closest to what Denver brings to the table. Manning, though, is one of the best ever at making adjustments on the fly, particularly at the line of scrimmage.

Couple his ability to read defenses with the Broncos' underrated offensive line (no team allowed fewer sacks than Denver's 20 in the regular season), and Seattle will have its hands full Sunday like never before this season.

"It's going to be a tough task, but we're up for it," linebacker Bobby Wagner said.  "You’ve got to be very patient. You’ve got to be so on your details when you play someone like him because if you’re off your spot just a little bit, he has the ability to get the ball into that spot."

2. The defense is rolling: Lost in all the Denver offense-versus-Seattle defense hoopla is that an almost equally intriguing matchup is set for the other side of the ball. Seattle's attack finished the regular season ranked No. 8 in points scored but it (and QB Russell Wilson, in particular) has been teeter-tottering between greatness and mediocrity since early December.

Denver's D, meanwhile, has found a groove -- even after losing Von Miller (again) and cornerback Chris Harris. Led by DT Terrance Knighton up front, the Broncos have limited five of their past six opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. And not since Week 15, when San Diego upset the Broncos on a Thursday night, has anyone gone over 17 points versus Denver.

If the Broncos' run defense can at least minimize Marshawn Lynch's work, it would swap the pressure onto Wilson. Denver's secondary is vulnerable, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a legitimate No. 1 corner.

3. Weather concerns are fading: The Broncos' run game is an underrated strength -- cue shameless plug for story on Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. Still, the general consensus is that sloppy Super Bowl Sunday conditions would favor Seattle, which is built more as a team to win in the trenches. Rain or wet snow could make throwing the football more difficult, thus potentially cutting into a huge chunk of Denver's offense.

A couple things there: 1. The perceived Broncos hatred of the winter weather might not be true -- Denver's players have reminded us all week how nasty Mother Nature can be in Colorado; and 2. Suddenly, Sunday's weather forecast is pretty pleasant, with a daytime high near 50.

"This is the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life, to play in the Super Bowl," Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "If it’s 100 degrees or negative 10, Sunday is the best day it’s going to be.

4. Too many weapons, even for Seattle's D: Richard Sherman has the talent to shut down one of Denver's weapons outside and a stout linebacking corps that features Wagner might be able to handle the Moreno-Ball combo. Plus, Earl Thomas might be the game's premier safety, at least in terms of how much of the field he can cover deep.

But ... then what?

Let's say Sherman finds himself on Demaryius Thomas and the line generates a little pressure on Manning and those linebackers box in the Denver run game. There's still Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and lesser-used threats like Jacob Tamme at Manning's disposal. The Broncos did not score 30-plus points in 13 of 16 regular-season games by accident.

"I look at their whole receiving corps, the whole offense, they’re all threats," said Seattle DB Kam Chancellor. "They’re all good. They deserve to be in the Super Bowl."

Getting pressure on Manning will be priority No. 1 for the Seahawks -- they said as much throughout Super Bowl week. But ... well, take it away Pete Carroll:

"Nobody has been able to do it."

5. The Champ Bailey factor: Obviously, every player taking the field Sunday wants with all their heart to win the Super Bowl. Is there even such a thing as an emotional edge to be gained when the stakes are this high?

Maybe. Baltimore found it last season during Ray Lewis' swan song, and this same Denver franchise rallied behind John Elway for back-to-back titles in 1997 and '98. This year, Champ Bailey has a definite spot at the forefront of the Broncos players' minds. Bailey, 35, is in his 15th NFL season and 10th with Denver; he has never played in a Super Bowl.

The Broncos want to make sure his first trip here -- and possibly his last game ever, should he choose retirement -- is an enjoyable one. His teammate, Quentin Jammer, can relate.

"Finally in the Super Bowl after 15 years," Jammer said. "I’m sure we have the same sentiment when it comes to the Super Bowl. We’re going to enjoy this as much as we can because we both know that you don’t get this opportunity very often. With him in his 15th year and me in my 12th, we may never get this opportunity again. Kids don’t understand that."

Said LB Wesley Woodyard: "We’ve got a guy on our defense, this is his first Super Bowl ever, Champ Bailey, so that’s one reason why we also go extra hard on the football field, for guys like that."

That overwhelming desire to get Champ a championship may be what pushes Denver over the top.

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