Peyton Manning has the opportunity to add another historic accomplishment to his stellar NFL career.
Standing in the way of him and the high-scoring Denver Broncos’ offense are the Seattle Seahawks, who hope their intimidating defense will help make history of their own.
Manning looks to become the first starting quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl title Sunday night when the Broncos face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium.
For the first time since the New York Giants beat Buffalo 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV following the 1990 season, the NFL’s top-ranked offense from Denver (15-3) will face the top-rated defense in Seattle (15-3).
The last time two No. 1 seeds also played for the league title came following the 2009 season, when New Orleans won 31-17 over an Indianapolis team led by Manning in Super Bowl XLIV.
"It will be a great matchup," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
The first outdoor Super Bowl played in a cold-weather city within the league’s biggest media market provides a unique backdrop, but much of the focus has remained on Manning.
After undergoing a series of neck operations that forced him to miss the 2011 season for the Colts, Manning earned the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award last season when he threw for 4,659 yards with 37 touchdowns while leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record. They lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore 38-35 in overtime in the divisional round, a stunning defeat in a game Denver appeared to have locked up before a 70-yard Ravens touchdown pass tied the game with less than a minute left.
Poised to help his team take the next step, Manning opened the 2013 season by throwing an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns in a 49-27 rout of Baltimore. That set the tone for the rest of the season, as he went on to set league records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 TDs for a team that averaged NFL bests of 37.9 points, 340.3 passing yards and 457.3 total yards.
"To have the kind of season he’s had to this point this year, I think is unprecedented," said Denver coach John Fox, the sixth coach to take two teams to a Super Bowl.
Regardless of the outcome Sunday, Manning, who turns 38 in March, doesn’t appear ready to call it a career. He also remains humble when talking about his place in NFL history.
”I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37," said Manning, who won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts and will try to lead Denver to its third after it won during the 1997 and ’98 seasons.
”I’d like to have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means.
"I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out."
His teammates will certainly be glad to see him stay. Demaryius Thomas recorded at least 90 receptions and 1,400 yards for a second straight year and caught a career-high 14 touchdowns in 2013. Eric Decker set career bests with 87 receptions and 1,288 yards while catching 11 TDs.
Tight end Julius Thomas had one reception in his first two NFL seasons but blossomed into one of the game’s best with 65 for 788 yards and 12 TDs in 2013.
Despite missing three games with a concussion, former New England star Wes Welker caught 73 passes and had 10 touchdowns in his first season in Denver.
Plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness the previous two years, New Jersey native Knowshon Moreno enjoyed his most successful season by rushing for 1,038 yards with 10 TDs and catching 60 passes for 548 with three touchdowns.
Thanks to Manning, 10 Broncos caught at least 10 passes and eight had TD receptions during the regular season and playoffs.
"Peyton’s been extraordinary," Carroll said. "People couldn’t even dream to have the year that Peyton’s had before this season with all the numbers. We’re up against it."
However, Carroll and his team are confident, and certainly not concerned that they’re the first team since the 1990 Bills to not have a player with Super Bowl experience on the roster. The Seahawks lost 21-10 to Pittsburgh in their only previous Super Bowl appearance following the 2005 season.
”I’ve never seen experience play in games," said talented but polarizing Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman.
Led by Sherman and a hard-hitting secondary known as the "Legion of Boom," the Seahawks topped the NFL in points (14.4), total yards (273.6) and passing yards (172.0) allowed. They forced a league-high 39 turnovers and, paced by ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, tied for eighth with 44 sacks.
"They are as good as advertised," said Manning, who has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 580 yards with two TDs and two interceptions in his two Super Bowls.
"Probably one of the more impressive things is how well they play together as a unit."
The Seahawks flexed their defensive muscle during the NFC championship game by forcing three fourth-quarter turnovers, including an interception that came off a deflection by Sherman in the end zone to seal the 23-17 win over San Francisco.
Sherman followed that game with an angry 20-second on-air rant directed at receiver Michael Crabtree, one which went on to spark a debate over sportsmanship and racial attitudes. He’s been more subdued and focused on the matter at hand this week.
”I am just a guy trying to be the best," said Sherman, who led the NFL with eight interceptions. ”I am a guy who wants to help this team win. I am a fiery competitor who puts his life into his work and puts his everything into his work."
They same goes for Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for 1,257 yards and matched a career high with 12 TDs. He also gained 249 yards and scored three touchdowns while averaging 5.0 per carry in the Seahawks’ two playoff games.
Though Seattle’s Russell Wilson has been understandably overshadowed by Manning this week, his 24 regular-season victories are the most by a quarterback in his first two seasons since 1950. Wilson is also the only QB to post a passer rating of at least 100.0 in each of his first two years.
Wilson, Lynch and the rest of the Seattle offense will try to get the best of a Denver defense that’s allowed an average of 15.0 points and 268.5 yards in the last four games, including postseason.
Manning and the intriguing on-field matchup will be the highlight, but the game-day forecast has been a hot topic from the moment the Meadowlands venue was awarded the Super Bowl. Though contingency plans are in place in the event of bad weather – which allow for the possibility of moving the game to Friday, Saturday or Monday – they likely won’t come into play. Seasonable temperatures and little or no precipitation are predicted for Sunday.
The kickoff temperature, though, could hover around 39 degrees, which is the coldest such reading in Super Bowl history when Dallas beat Miami 24-3 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans in Super Bowl VI.
”I don’t care where we play,” star Seattle safety Earl Thomas said. "I know when we play, all the feelings and the stuff I need to get ready and prepare. It’ll be there."
Denver and Seattle both played at the Meadowlands this season.
Manning beat little brother Eli’s Giants 41-23 on Sept. 15. The Seahawks routed the same opponent 23-0 exactly three months to the day of the Broncos’ victory.
Peyton Manning has a chance to pull even in a sibling rivalry, as he can win at Eli’s home stadium for his second championship. That would return the favor from Super Bowl XLVI, in which Eli led the Giants past New England at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium for his second title.
Denver is 34-19 against Seattle and won 31-14 in the most recent meeting in 2010. That includes the Seahawks’ 31-7 home victory in the only postseason matchup between the former AFC West rivals in 1983.