Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno (L) runs a drill as an assistant tries to strip the ball from him during their practice session for the Super Bowl at the New York Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey on Thursday. (REUTERS: Ray Stubblebine)
NEW YORK — If styles make fights, as they used to say in the heyday of world championship boxing, Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks would be billed as the “Fight of the Century.”
Call it the Irresistible Force vs the Immovable Object as Peyton Manning and the National Football League’s top-ranked Denver offense go toe-to-toe against Richard Sherman and the number one rated Seattle defense in an East Rutherford, New Jersey, winter setting at MetLife Stadium.
Manning, in the argument as professional football’s greatest quarterback, set NFL records for most passing yards and most touchdown passes in a season for the 13-3 Broncos, who averaged 38 points a game.
Sherman, the trash-talking cornerback who led the NFL in interceptions, is the face of a supremely effective Seattle defense that limited opposition offenses to a mere 14 points a game in the Seahawks’ 13-3 campaign.
The points margin is the widest in 48 Super Bowls and fuels speculation on whether either team can impose their will.
Profiles of those impressive opposing units set up a fascinating study of strength against strength in a game where Denver is rated a slight favorite.
Gunning to become the first starting quarterback to win Super Bowl titles with two different teams, following an NFL title with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning has a brilliant quartet of receivers to throw to.
The cerebral quarterback, renowned for figuring out the best options against a defense in the moments prior to the snap, has been an equal opportunity thrower.
Targets Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas have each caught at least 60 passes and registered at least 10 touchdowns.
As daunting as those combinations are, they are up against the most formidable part of Seattle’s stifling defense.
Sherman and fellow Pro Bowlers Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor at safety, along with cornerback Byron Maxwell, often dare quarterbacks to throw their way with tight man-to-man coverage confident in their own ball-hawking skills.
A classic drop-back quarterback, Manning uses his quick mind and quick release to stay a beat ahead of pass-rushers and after Denver led the regular season in fewest sacks allowed, he has not been sacked once this postseason.
Seattle uses a deep rotation of defensive linemen, including sack leaders Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, to apply pressure.
Making Manning uncomfortable is a Seattle goal.
“It’s really about his timing,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “He’s so quick with the football and his decision making is so precise, that the ball’s just not in his hands long enough to get there, for the most part.
“We can’t give into that. We have to rush the passer, we have to try to get him off the spot, we have to try to move him, and to get that done, we’re going to have to cover them (receivers) very well.”
Weather conditions and officiating could impact the tantalizing clash.
While seasonable temperatures have been forecast for Sunday, the strength of winds that often swirl around the stadium built on swamplands is a wild card.
Gusting winds could impair Manning, whose arm strength is not of the highest order, drawing Sherman to comment on the wobbly “ducks” that the Broncos quarterback sometimes throws.
A closely called game in which officials crack down on overly physical play, could cost the super aggressive play of Seattle defenders.
When Seattle has the ball, second-year quarterback Russell Wilson manages a ball-control attack but is capable of producing a big play with his skills as a scrambler and has tied for the most wins ever by an NFL quarterback in his first two seasons.
The go-to man is bruising running back Marshawn Lynch, who after an uncomfortable week fidgeting and ducking from the glare of media attention will finally get to do what comes naturally for him - run with the ball.
Lynch’s power runs set up throws by Russell to a solid crew of receivers including Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and big-play threat Percy Harvin.
Harvin, signed to a $67 million contract before the season, has played in parts of just two games for Seattle due to injuries but is raring to go, and hopes to pay dividends in the Super Bowl as a receiver, runner and kick returner.
Both teams are dangerous on special teams, with Seattle holding an edge, and a long kickoff or punt return could sway the balance in what many observers expect to be a taut battle.
“The number one scoring offense against the number one scoring defense. The running game of Seattle versus the passing of the Broncos,” Gil Brandt, the former long-time personnel chief of the Dallas Cowboys, summarized when asked by Reuters to evaluate the game.
Brandt said chilled fans might get to see a Super Bowl first on Sunday.
“This might be the first overtime game we ever play,” he concluded.