- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The most prominent storyline of Super Bowl XLVIII, at least beyond what Richard Sherman said, what Marshawn Lynch didn't say and just how much wobble is in the average Peyton Manning touchdown pass, has been the Denver Broncos' No. 1 offense and the Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense.
It has been the classic matchup of league best on league best and the first of its kind since Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the league's No. 1 defense, defeated the Oakland Raiders (the No. 1 offense) to close out the 2002 season.
But how a Broncos defense battered by injuries throughout the season responds against Seattle's power offense with Lynch at running back, the mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback and wide receiver Percy Harvin playing in just his third game of the season, will have a lot to say about how things go for the Broncos. In fact, it may have everything to say about whether or not the Broncos get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
"We feel like we need to be the defense we know we can be," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We've been better as the season has gone on, we've adjusted some, overcome some and now we feel like we're ready to play our best football."
The Broncos have four defensive starters on injured reserve -- cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller -- and they have not always played with the consistency defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would have liked because of it. But after holding opponents to fewer than 17 points only once in 14 games, the Broncos have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in four consecutive games. The total includes both of their playoff wins -- 24-17 against the San Diego Chargers and 26-16 over the New England Patriots.
"In spite of all the things that could have derailed us, we stayed on point, stayed on message, continued to grind, continued to believe," Del Rio said.
Del Rio has used a variety of lineup combinations until settling on the current one that includes Woodyard, an every-down player for much of the season, now playing in the specialty packages. Del Rio also has put Paris Lenon at middle linebacker in the base defense to go with Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving at the other two linebacker spots.
The combination gives the Broncos a little more bulk against opposing run games, especially one such as the Seahawks'.
The return of Champ Bailey, who played just five games in the regular season because of a left foot injury, has given Del Rio more options of late in the coverages the team can play and stabilized things, even with Harris Jr. having torn an ACL against the Chargers in the divisional round. After initially returning to the lineup, playing in the slot as part of the nickel defense (five defensive backs), Bailey will likely start on the outside against the Seahawks and then move inside to the slot if Seattle goes to a three-wide receiver look. In the nickel, Bailey would likely face Harvin or Doug Baldwin.
And the Broncos have gotten enough from Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and Terrance Knighton in the pass rush to at least try to work past Miller's injury, a torn ACL he suffered in Houston in Week 16.
"We think we can play the way we need to, we know we have to if we're going to win this game," Bailey said. "We don't think too much about the injuries. We would love to have those guys because you always want your best out there. But [Del Rio] isn't going to let you talk about that anyway and we wouldn't want to."
Said Del Rio: "I don't even want to hear it, I don't want to hear it from our staff, I don't want to hear a reason that we can't. I want to talk about how we're going to get it done. I don't spend a lot of time entertaining how we can't. I understand that we can and want to figure out exactly how we can get it done. It's a little bit of scheme, it's a little bit of technique, there's a little of mentality you've got to build. It can be pretty good if you put it all together and everybody buys in."
While the Broncos' record-setting offense and the Seahawks' bone-rattling defense have parked themselves in the headlines this week, Sunday's game may well be decided by what Seattle's offense does against Del Rio's defense.
"We feel underrated a little bit, but we've got to expect that," Broncos safety Mike Adams said. "I probably would say the same thing because we had a slow start as a defense early in the season. But one thing we did: We finished the season strong and we carried it on to the playoffs, and we're trying to continue that streak that we're on."