For the Seattle Seahawks to claim their first NFL title, the classic elements shared by numerous champions — a physical defense and strong running game — are vital. Seattle's five keys to victory in Super Bowl XLVIII:
1. Keepaway/takeaway: The Seahawks have to play to their own strengths while trying to take away Denver's. In a nutshell, that means keeping QB Peyton Manning and his record-smashing offense off the field or just forcing them to the sideline. The Broncos lost the time of possession battle in two of their three defeats this season, and the Seahawks should be able to play ball control with chain-moving RB Marshawn Lynch and a fleet of possession receivers. Denver converted just 37.2% of its third downs in its losses (well below its 46.3% season average) and will face a Seattle D that allowed a stingy 35.2% success rate. Finally, the Seahawks forced an NFL-best 39 turnovers while the Broncos have a penchant for putting the ball on the ground (league-worst 16 fumbles lost). Eight of Denver's 26 turnovers came in defeat this season.
2. Pressure Peyton: Easier said than done. Manning has been hit only once in the playoffs and has yet to be sacked. And despite missing all-pro LT Ryan Clady for 14 games, Manning only went down 18 times in the regular season. However if the pass rush reaches him, good things can happen for Seattle. Manning fumbled 10 times this season and lost six of them. The Seahawks managed 44 sacks in the regular season and feature four players who had at least five, including DE Cliff Avril, one of the best in the business at separating quarterbacks from the ball when he turns the corner. Denver frequently releases at least four players into pass routes, so Seattle is unlikely to see many (if any) maximum protection schemes, especially since Manning's quick release is often his best countermeasure.
3. Clog pass lanes: The Broncos love to work the middle of the field with their passing game and run plenty of underneath timing patterns. And the colder — and, more critically, windier — it gets Sunday, the more Manning and Co. are likely to rely on in-breaking routes that minimize the ball's flight. But Seattle owned what was far and away the NFL's most tight-fisted pass defense (172 yards per game allowed) and surrendered an NFC-low 16 TD passes, all the more remarkable given opponents in catch-up mode were frequently forced to the air. All-pro CB Richard Sherman has given Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary ever-growing notoriety, but LBs K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin, Malcolm Smith and Bobby Wagner are underrated components who are all solid to stellar in coverage. In six collective appearances this season, star TEs Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez totaled 14 receptions for 136 yards against Seattle. And few pass catchers want to go over the middle given the possibility they could be decleated by ferocious SS Kam Chancellor — San Francisco 49ers WR Michael Crabtree had a case of alligator arms in the NFC Championship Game before he was deleted by Sherman on the game-sealing play.
4. Percy power: The sexiest acquisition of Seattle's offseason, WR/KR Percy Harvin, has been cleared to play for just the third time this season and promises he "won't leave anything in the tank" on Super Sunday. He averaged 17.5 yards per touch (4 catches, 1 rush, 1 kickoff return) in his two Seahawks appearances. But Harvin's numbers aren't truly indicative of his impact. Sure, he makes WRs Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse more effective, but he can really help to unshackle Lynch by drawing defenders out of the box.
5. Special teams: The Broncos' kick coverage units are poor, ranking last in the NFL after allowing 29.3 yards per kickoff return. That weakness has been masked lately as K Matt Prater's booming touchbacks in Denver's thin air has saved the Broncos from covering a single kick in the playoffs. But Prater probably won't be able to hide them at sea level while operating in cold and heavy air. Harvin is a terror as a returner, Baldwin shook loose for a 69-yarder in the NFC title game while Tate is a dangerous punt returner. In a contest that appears so evenly matched in most areas, the Seahawks should have a decided edge here.