Five story lines to monitor in Super Bowl XLVIII, which will be played between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos on Feb. 2:
New York, New York: Go east, young men. The big city certainly won't bother the Seahawks or Broncos, nor will MetLife Stadium (technically located across the river from New York City in East Rutherford, N.J.), a building where both teams easily handled the New York Giants in 2013. Seattle won there Dec. 15 on a 36-degree day more likely to resemble the conditions they'll face in the Super Bowl. Denver at least got the lay of the land on balmy summer day in September. Adverse weather isn't unfamiliar to either team anyway given their home climes, but the Seahawks do appear better designed to weather problematic weather. RB Marshawn Lynch runs like a snow plow under the sunniest skies and powers a ground attack that has largely carried the Seattle offense in the playoffs. He's also a big-game performer who has six TDs in six postseason appearances and averages more than 100 yards from scrimmage. Denver's run game is middle of the pack, and it remains to be seen how much the rib injury that knocked Knowshon Moreno out of the AFC Championship Game hinders him. The Seahawks are packing the NFL's best defense — fewest yards and points allowed, most turnovers generated, clutch plays at every turn — in their eastbound charter. The Broncos will bring a depleted but game group of defenders who have held up so far. But their best defense may be an excellent offense — one that's dominated time of possession in postseason — though Peyton Manning and Co. seem more likely to be affected by the infamous Meadowlands winds than the Seahawks. And there's no doubt Manning will be confronted with the question he perhaps hates most: will he struggle in cold weather and will his post-surgical grip on the ball suffer if the temperature dips.
On guard: Denver's offensive line has undergone a transformation this season with a key free-agent addition (all-pro RG Louis Vazquez), a converted center (Manny Ramirez) and super sub LT Chris Clark, who's capably filled in for injured all-pro Ryan Clady since Week 2. How impenetrable has this group been lately? Manning has been touched exactly once in postseason (a hit from Chargers NT Cam Thomas) and has yet to be sacked. The quarterback certainly deserves credit for his pocket awareness, nimble feet and hair-trigger release, and he can easily dissect a defense as good as Seattle's given the time. It's been a different story for the Seahawks. Russell Wilson invites some contact given his penchant for extending plays with his feet. But he's been sacked seven times and hit a total of 12 in two playoff games. Wilson's body is young enough to take some abuse, but Seattle certainly can't afford many more drive-killing sacks if the Broncos start lighting up the scoreboard. Keep an eye on what the Seahawks do at left guard. Former first-rounder James Carpenter and undrafted rookie Michael Bowie each started one playoff game while spending the other on the inactive list.
Legion of Boom vs. Legion of Zoom: The Broncos set a slew of offensive records in 2013, including most points scored (606) while Manning captured the marks for passing yards (5,477) and TD throws (55) in a season. But it's worth noting they faced only three defenses that finished in the top half of the NFL rankings, the best being Houston's seventh-ranked squad. Manning's matchup with Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary will be one of the most compelling of the Super Bowl. The Seahawks have a squadron of talented, big, hard-hitting defensive backs who are the envy of NFL personnel men. All-pro CB Richard Sherman has the length and speed to stick with Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas while CBs Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond III divvy up coverage of WRs Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Bubba Caldwell. Denver TE Julius Thomas has been a revelation this season, but Seattle's underrated linebackers are excellent in coverage while SS Kam Chancellor will make anyone think twice about crossing the middle. Manning will likely attempt to establish Julius Thomas, a mismatch weapon against most defenses, as he did against New England. But the Seahawks have faced two superstar tight ends in the playoffs already, and Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis combined for all of three catches and 24 yards. Seattle neutralized Drew Brees and the Saints twice this season, showing they're more than comfortable against the most high-tech attacks, and their ability to deploy fresh waves of pass rushers is another underrated aspect of their arsenal. But solving Manning is no easy assignment, and no one mixes and matches the mismatches he isolates pre-snap any better. The chess match should be a joy to behold.
Mercy, Percy: Turns out Seattle's best offseason acquisitions last year were probably free agent DEs Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. But the trade for WR/KR Percy Harvin is the move still garnering the most scrutiny. Hip surgery sidelined him for most of the season, and a concussion kept him out of uniform in the NFC Championship Game. But assuming he can play in the Super Bowl, there's no denying Harvin's impact. In two appearances for Seattle this season, he touched the ball six times (4 catches, 1 rush, 1 kickoff return), averaging 17.5 yards per. More importantly, Harvin's presence alone makes Lynch and WRs Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse more effective. After losing Chris Harris to a torn ACL in the divisional round, the Broncos don't feature a corner with vast experience defending the slot, where Harvin is most likely to line up.
Special deliveries: Special teams rarely generate a ton of conversation, and that's not likely to change even with the Super Bowl hype machine coming to life. But both clubs are mostly stacked here, blessed with strong kicking games and returners. But here's food for thought that very well could provide a buffet of post-script analysis in what appears to be an evenly matched contest. Denver's kick coverage was spotty in the regular season but didn't have to defend a single return in the playoffs thanks to the Mile High air they play in and Matt Prater's penchant for delivering touchbacks. They better not be rusty on Super Sunday, though. Baldwin popped a 69-yard kickoff against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and Harvin is even more lethal in the return game. On the flip side, Denver's Trindon Holliday is statistically the most dangerous return man in recent history with the highest special teams touchdown rate (even better than Devin Hester) since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and would have more than six TD runbacks if not for some killer penalties by his teammates. But the diminutive Holliday is also prone to putting the ball on the ground and drastically changing field position to Denver's detriment, so it's little surprise the more sure-handed Decker has been handling punt return duties in the playoffs.