NEW YORK — The Super Bowl has all the ingredients for a fascinating thriller with the Denver Broncos boasting the NFL’s best attack and the Seattle Seahawks the top defense, but weather worries provide an element of high anxiety.
Peyton Manning, Denver’s record-setting quarterback, and trash-talking cornerback Richard Sherman of the Seahawks, are the faces of the teams and lead the opposing units that could well determine the National Football League championship.
Manning, a four-time NFL most valuable player, broke league records this season for most passing yards and touchdown passes for the top-scoring AFC champion Denver offense.
Sherman led the league with eight interceptions for a hard-hitting secondary nicknamed “Legion of Boom” on an NFC champion defense that gave up the fewest yards and points, and created the most turnovers in the league.
Can second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, directing an attack spearheaded by bruising runner Marshawn Lynch, help Seattle win their first Super Bowl, or will Manning make more history by becoming the first quarterback to start and win Super Bowls with two franchises after a first triumph with the Indianapolis Colts.
The mysteries will be settled on February 2 in East Rutherford, New Jersey in the first Super Bowl staged in the New York City area and first winter weather, outdoor Super Bowl - weather permitting.
NFL officials gambled when they awarded the Super Bowl to New York/New Jersey, hoping to lure high-rollers to Manhattan for a memorable wintry celebration of football, rather than book the usual warm-weather, party-time destination.
But winter has come early and with frigid authority, leading NFL officials to pore over contingency plans that could shift the game to as early as Friday, as late as Monday or to a different site altogether should severe weather, such as the storm that crippled the area earlier this week, threaten to hit.
“We have contingencies on top of contingencies,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters.
If it is any consolation, oddsmakers have an optimistic view on conditions for the game, expected to draw more than 80,000 people to MetLife Stadium and over 100 million TV viewers.
Manning, whose Broncos are slightly favored, has enjoyed a brilliant season at age 37 in his second year in Denver after leaving the Indianapolis Colts following a lost campaign due to career-threatening neck surgeries.
Despite a wonderful regular season resume in his NFL career, Manning has scuffled in the postseason with an 11-11 record and critics questioned how effective he was playing in cold weather.
Manning thumbed his nose at doubters about his ability in the cold after a dominant day in a 51-28 December win over the Tennessee Titans in 15 degrees (minus-9.4 C) on the way to taking the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
“Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don’t shine,” Manning said after completing 39 of 59 passes for nearly 400 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Denver’s brilliant receiving corps includes Pro Bowlers Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas along with Eric Decker and Wes Welker.
One key could be how well his offensive line does against the Seattle front seven, who can ill afford to give Manning time to pick out the open man among his numerous options.
While Seattle’s defensive secondary, that also includes Pro Bowl safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, gets most of the attention, the Seahawks can be productive on offense.
In contrast to Denver, Seattle is a run-first team behind Lynch, whose punishing style supports his nickname “Beast Mode”.
Wilson, a Pro Bowl selection for a second year in a row, has functioned as a careful game manager but is capable of making a big play.
A third-round draft pick in 2011, Wilson is undersized as a quarterback at just under 5-11 (1.80 m), but has a strong arm and quick feet that help him elude pass rushers.
He uses his quickness to buy time rather than to scurry up-field, and receivers including Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are adept at sliding into open space to offer him targets.
Against Denver, Seattle may get to unleash seldom used special weapon Percy Harvin, an explosive receiver who has been cleared to play after suffering a concussion in their playoff win over the New Orleans Saints.
Harvin, signed as a free agent from the Vikings, played in only 40 snaps this season due to recovery from hip surgery and then the concussion.
While ticket-buyers, who have shelled out up to $2,600 in face value for an individual ticket and thousands more on secondary markets, NFL officials and media nervously chart weather forecasts, the teams have been preparing for game-time conditions that could become critical.
Slippery weather often helps an offensive team, since receivers know where they are going while defenders must react, but winds that often sweep across New Jersey’s Meadowlands swamp area could hamper Manning.
Both teams logged wins this season at MetLife over the New York Giants and both coaches have first-hand experience in stadiums there.
Denver coach John Fox was defensive coordinator for the Giants for five years including a Super Bowl trip in 2001, and Seattle coach Pete Carroll was head man for the New York Jets, who share the same stadium, in 1994.
Two years ago, the Denver quarterback’s younger brother Eli Manning, led the Giants to a Super Bowl win in Indianapolis over New England in Peyton Manning’s home stadium for his second championship ring.
Now the tables are turned and Eli Manning is doing what he can to help big brother win a second title at his own MetLife home, by rounding up tickets for him and offering inside information on playing in the stadium.
“I’ll be happy to give him some tips,” Eli told reporters in a conference call on Thursday.
Younger brother might be better placed to give Peyton a ‘what not to do list’, as Seattle shut out the Giants 23-0 in their December meeting and intercepted Eli Manning five times.