Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, left, talks to Broncos quarterback Peyton...

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, left, talks to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning during a preseason game. Credit: AP, 2013

More than 2½ years' worth of anticipation, capped by a frenzied media week -- New York style -- and here we are. Finally, it is showtime for Super Bowl XLVIII.


It's about as compelling a matchup as you'll find: No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense. Hall of Fame quarterback against emerging young star. By-the-book, old-school coach against hyper-positive, uber-aggressive, cutting edge coach. The loquacious cornerback and the media-shy running back on one side. The big-time yet low-key receiver and the aging superstar cornerback on the other.

Star players. Intriguing coaches. There's something for everyone in this game. Peyton Manning with a chance to win a second Super Bowl to match his younger brother. Russell Wilson with a chance to win his first in just his second year. Pete Carroll to win a Super Bowl almost 20 years after being fired by the Jets. And John Fox with a chance to win his first championship after getting here a second time.

Richard Sherman, the mouthy cornerback, and running back Marshawn Lynch, who made more news during the week by what he didn't say, for the Seahawks. And understated receiver Demaryius Thomas and cornerback Champ Bailey for the Broncos.

Great matchups wherever you look. As good a football game -- on paper, anyway -- as you'll ever want.

So who wins and why?

Well, we go back to the time-worn adage that usually has been about as good a barometer as there is for predicting games like this: Defense wins championships.

Although there is a tug of sentimentality that tempts us to go with Manning, the cold, hard reality of football is enough to convince us that Seattle is ready to place its stamp on Super Bowl history.

Manning, at 37, has been playing some of the best football of his career, maybe even the best. With 55 touchdown passes during the regular season, he set a record. He has thrown only one interception in the playoffs, and is coming off a 400-yard masterpiece against the Patriots.

But he has not faced a defense quite like the Seahawks', a group that is made in Carroll's image: fast, aggressive, powerful. As close to perfect as there is in today's NFL. The pass rush is relentless. The pass defense is extraordinary, and not just because of Sherman. Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are terrific.

Seattle allowed only 14.4 points per game during the regular season, and the Seahawks handled the best of the NFC in playoff wins over the Saints and 49ers. The speed with which they come off the edge in the pass rush may be the best in football, and even Manning, who gets rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the game, will be hard-pressed to stave off the rush.

The one hope that Manning does have is if he can get into a rhythm early and put points on the board, prompting the Seahawks to get into a shootout. Wilson's poise is remarkable for such a young player, but even he isn't ready to get into a scoring match with Manning, especially if the Broncos' star is on his game right from the start.

Now the question becomes whether Manning can get on that roll. He can if he can find the seams in the Seahawks' defense, dink and dunk his way up the field, and mix in a long pass or two along the way.

Manning needs to do what he does best, and that's spread the ball around to his arsenal of weapons. Thomas is one of the best big receivers in the game. Tight end Julius Thomas has emerged as a legitimate threat. Eric Decker is one of the most underrated outside receivers in the league. And Wes Welker is as good as there is in the slot.

So as good as Seattle's defense has been all season, the Seahawks haven't seen an offense quite like Manning's. Colin Kaepernick nearly drove the 49ers to the winning score in the NFC Championship Game, and if not for the saving play in the end zone by Sherman, it might have been the 49ers who got to face Manning Sunday night.

In the end, though, we see Seattle's defense imposing its will on the Broncos, and forcing Manning into situations where he'll have to take some chances that won't turn out so well. Just the slightest miscalculation on Manning's part may lead to a turnover, and that's the one thing he needs to avoid at all costs. Two or more turnovers by the Broncos, and it's over. Seattle is just too opportunistic not to take advantage of those kinds of mistakes.

Close game? Yes, especially if the weather isn't a factor. But in the end, defense and youth win out, and the Super Bowl goes to the Seahawks.

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