players to watch
PEYTON MANNING •
Talk about a stressful 60 minutes of football. A record five-time league MVP and one-time Super Bowl winner actually needs to win this game to be remembered as having lived up to his full potential. Fair? No. Reality? You betcha. A win would tie little brother Eli in Super Bowl victories and move him within one of Tom Brady with still enough time to even the score with his career-long nemesis. A loss and, well, the record season and a great career will be always — and wrongly — include a "yeah, but …"
RUSSELL WILSON • SEAHAWKS QB
On the flip side, there's no historical pressure on Wilson beyond the usual Super Bowl stress. Wilson, 25, is a former third-round draft pick who already has more regular-season wins (24) than any other second-year quarterback in NFL history. But his unflappable poise and extraordinary ability to elude tackles, extend plays and make crisp, on-time throws down the field will be tested early. When the jitters are fresh, that's when passes from young QBs tend todo the Super Bowl sail.
TERRANCE KNIGHTON • BRONCOS Dt
The focus this week has been on Manning vs. Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary. But what about "Pot Roast" (Knighton) vs. "Beast Mode" (Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch)? Seattle's a run- oriented team with a wild man running the ball. Lynch is averaging 5.0 yards per postseason carry. "Pot Roast" is a giant mound of flesh and muscle smack dab in the middle of a run defense that's allowing a postseason-low 64.5 yards per game.
RICHARD SHERMAN • SEAHAWKS cb
The self-proclaimed best cornerback in the world now has to prove it while facing a legendary quarterback and an offense that had a record four receivers catch at least 10 touchdowns. Sherman kept his mouth under control for the most part this week, but he did slip by saying Manning tends to throw "ducks." He was right, of course, but it still became sensationalized.
keys to the game
WHO'S MORE PHYSICAL?
Typically, the conversation about the physical battle is contained to the line of scrimmage. But this game could come down to the hand-to-hand confrontations between Seattle's oversized cornerbacks and aggressive safeties and Denver's receivers and tight ends. Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase uses well-designed bunch sets that allow receivers and tight ends to beat man coverage with legal and sometimes questionable pick plays. If Seattle can disrupt that, it will affect the rhythm that makes Manning, well, Manning.
CAN DENVER CONTAIN LYNCH?
Now this is a traditional conversation about a physical battle. Seattle must control the game with its running game to keep Manning off the field. If Denver's defense, which has been gaining momentum since December, can stay stout in the middle with Knighton as the anchor, the Broncos' other defenders will be able to swarm to Lynch. And the only way to bring this wild-eyed runner down is with a swarm. If you notice Denver's D-line moving backward, get ready to see less of Peyton Manning.
WHAT ABOUT PERCY?
Seahawks receiver-kick returner Percy Harvin will be perhaps the best athlete on the field. But the former Viking also has played only 39 snaps in two games during his first year in Seattle. Is that a good thing because he's finally healthy and his legs are fresh? Or will he be rusty and prone to further injury? Harvin's only regular-season action came against the Vikings. He played only 20 snaps, but both touches — one catch, one kickoff return — were turning points in a 40-21 Seahawks rout.
* MANNY RAMIREZ • broncos center
Ramirez is one of three Super Bowl XLVIII participants who were on the Lions team that went 0-16 in 2008. He's also a 12-year veteran who is in his first season playing center. The former guard and third-string center was bumped up to the front line at a new position when injuries to other players created a need in the offseason. Few will watch anything he does Sunday, but he has the pressure of keeping the front of the passing pocket clean and coordinating his line calls with all of Manning's pre-snap changes.
STEVEN HAUSCHKA • seahawks kicker
He has suited up for six NFL teams and one UFL team since joining the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2008. Hauschka was released that summer but bounced around the league, even spending part of a season with Denver when Matt Prater was injured. Lost in the shadows of Seattle's "Beast Mode" and "Legion of Boom" talk is a kicker who made a career-high 33 of 35 field goal attempts (94.3 percent).
This has been a predictable but still exciting NFL postseason. We predicted Seattle over Denver here at the start of the playoffs, and we'll stick to that. Admittedly, it's not easy to pick against Peyton Manning when he's at the peak of his career. But Seattle has the defense that will disrupt pass routes, which will throw Manning off rhythm just enough for Seattle's pass rush to catch up to the speed at which Manning's mind works.
Seahawks 31, Broncos 28