There are stars aplenty in the upcoming Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, but these championship games usually end up being decided by an unsung hero who rises to the occasion at the critical moment.
Desmond Howard (1997 Green Bay Packers), Dexter Jackson (2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Deion Branch (2005 New England Patriots) ended up winning Super Bowl MVP trophies by showing up in the biggest way possible for their respective teams with the game on the line.
There are a few X-factors in this upcoming championship tilt with the potential to match those immortal legends with game-changing plays in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Here's a quick look at when and where you can catch the action, along with betting information, followed by a closer examination of those players.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Live Stream: FoxSports.com
Betting Info (via Bovada)
Spread: Broncos (-3)
Money Line: Seattle (+115), Denver (-135)
X-Factors Who Will Decide Super Bowl XLVIII
Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Peyton Manning is going to shred Seattle's vaunted secondary if he has time to sit in the pocket on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium. It won't matter how on his game Richard Sherman is, because Manning is the deadliest pocket passer the league has ever seen and his receivers are adept at getting open.
That's where Cliff Avril comes in.
He, along with Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, will be tasked with pressuring Manning into making quicker throws, and hopefully, a few mistakes.
It's Avril who has the potential to make the biggest impact, given his penchant for stripping the ball from the blind side.
Throughout his career, the pass-rusher racked up 21 forced fumbles heading into this year's playoffs. He made a crucial strip of Drew Brees in the divisional round and then came up with a huge sack/strip on Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game.
And he was a key contributor on that game's most critical play, too, as pointed out by Brian Nemhauser of Hawkblogger.com:
B/R's Mike Freeman recently highlighted Avril as "one of the most underrated players in the Super Bowl," and he's not wrong. The defensive end can turn the tide of the contest if he can consistently apply pressure to Manning, who isn't immune to mistakes under pressure.
Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos
Seattle's defense is the best in the NFL at stopping teams from passing the ball. The Seahawks only allowed 172 passing yards per game and 16 total passing touchdowns during the regular season. Kaepernick and Drew Brees only managed two touchdowns, along with two interceptions, against this unit during the playoffs.
Many believe that Denver's quartet of talented receivers—Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Demaryius and Julius Thomas—is more than equipped to make hay against Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary. After all, this unit helped Manning break single-season records for total passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) in 2013.
That said, there's no doubt the Broncos will need to come in with a balanced approach in order to ensure Seattle's pass-rushers can't lock onto Manning like hunters stalking wounded prey.
Thankfully for the Broncos, Knowshon Moreno has been highly productive this year when the Broncos have leaned on him for that balance. He rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns this past season (his first 1,000-yard season as a pro) and added another 548 yards and three scores on 60 receptions.
But that's not all he does, as Manning was quick to point out recently, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:
[Moreno] has just been extremely dependable for us the entire season in the passing game, in the running game and in pass protection. I’ve said this before. We are in the shotgun a lot. I just feel very comfortable with No. 27 standing next to me.
If Moreno can come through with another strong performance against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII—running the ball, catching key screens and showing up big in pass protection—then the Broncos will have an excellent chance to win the game.
Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Perhaps the biggest X-factor of Super Bowl XLVIII is Percy Harvin, because he could either be a nonfactor or the game's MVP, depending on how involved he is and whether he can stay on the field.
After missing the NFC Championship Game with a concussion suffered against New Orleans in the divisional round, Harvin is healthy and ready to contribute on Feb. 2.
Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times reports that the team expects him to be a big part of the offense: “He’s in,’’ head coach Pete Carroll said. “He had another great day (of practice) today (Monday) and a great week last week. He’s part of the game plan.”
That could spell big trouble for the Broncos. Throughout his career, Harvin has caused no shortage of headaches for opposing defenses, hauling in 20 touchdown passes, another four on the ground and another five by way of special teams returns.
Champ Bailey knows his team is in for a huge challenge defending the dynamic playmaker.
“That’s a dangerous man right there,” Bailey said, via Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. “He can change the game if you allow him to. I remember playing him when he was in Minnesota, and he’s one of the most explosive guys coming off the ball.”
If Harvin explodes with a big game against Denver's secondary, then it will open up huge running lanes for Marshawn Lynch. Simply put, his ability to stretch the field opens up the entire offense, because once Lynch starts going, then the play-action pass becomes deadly.
If Harvin has a big game, then the Seahawks will win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78