EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Boxing fans like to say that styles make fights. The same axiom applies to Super Bowls.
When the Seahawks and Broncos meet tonight at MetLife Stadium, it will mark the first Super Bowl matchup between the NFL’s No. 1 defense and the league’s top-ranked offense since the 2002 Buccaneers dismantled the Oakland Raiders.
As Tampa Bay fans can painfully attest, that was a long time ago.
But the intrigue surrounding tonight’s game goes far beyond the question of whether Denver’s record-setting quarterback, Peyton Manning, can shred a hard-hitting secondary that placed three players in the Pro Bowl and sparked Seattle to an NFC title.
This game also represents a duel between cutting-edge coach Pete Carroll and his Denver counterpart, John Fox, who is only a few months removed from open-heart surgery.
Then there’s the contrast between Manning, in his 16th season of torching NFL defenses from the safety of the pocket, and 25-year-old Russell Wilson, an undersized second-year pro who has emerged in the vanguard of a new group of athletic quarterbacks.
“There’s a lot of different body types, a lot of different styles, a lot of different paths to be able to play in this league,’’ Seattle center Max Unger said. “Russell’s carving his own ... and I think he’s doing a heck of a job.’’
Wilson ran for 539 yards this season as Seattle went 13-3 before beating the Saints and the 49ers in the playoffs. He was also sacked 44 times while trying to scramble away when protection broke down.
The last time the word “scramble’’ was attached to Manning, someone was taking his breakfast order.
While Manning lives in the pocket, Wilson considers it temporary dwelling.
“Peyton makes things so much easier just by him keeping our defense off the field,’’ Broncos safety Mike Adams said. “You can see his preparation during the week. It’s like Picasso, it’s like Michelangelo. He’s painting his picture during the week, and then he puts his finishing touches on it on Sunday.’’
Manning fits the old prototype of successful NFL quarterbacks — tall, composed in the pocket, patient in his progressions.
Along came Wilson, a 5-foot-11 speedster who was also so adroit as a shortstop the Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 baseball draft.
“I think without question Russell has at least turned some heads,’’ Carroll said. “It’s exciting to see that’s happened because there are a lot of marvelous athletes and we’re seeing it right now. Johnny Manziel is an incredible athlete that might not have been considered as highly before Russell had all this success.’’
Fox, the son of a U.S. Navy SEAL, is a traditionalist.
“You kind of are what you’ve been around,’’ said Fox, who coached the Panthers for nine years before being hired by Denver in 2011. “I grew up in that (military) setting. There are correlations. I’m not trying to confuse what we do with what those guys do, but you do draw from it. There are militaristic principles and concepts in a team sport like football.’’
Fox enjoyed success at Carolina with drop-back passer Jake Delhomme, who guided the 2003 Panthers to the Super Bowl, only to lose a 32-29 shootout to Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Once Manning was lured to Denver as a free agent in 2012, he and Fox formed a tight bond based on mutual respect. Fox also appreciates the way Manning accepts his status as a role model.
“My dad (Archie) was the quarterback of the Saints,’’ Manning said. “As a kid, watching my dad after games, doing his interviews, signing autographs, I can remember that. It did have an impact on me, how he handled those situations. It’s changed a lot since then and I do miss those days.’’
For Wilson and Carroll, a dynamic new day has dawned in an often-stodgy league.
Carroll and GM John Schneider have emerged as a powerful tandem, unafraid to take chances on players that don’t necessarily fit the profile or, like running back Marshawn Lynch, arrive in Seattle with a label of damaged goods.
“The reinforcement and the confidence we put in one another allows us to make the choices that we do,’’ Carroll said. “We really don’t care about what other people think and we’re not going to be driven by the status quo. We’ve really trusted our gut on decisions.’’
Carroll won’t let his players slip by on the details, but the former Southern Cal coach also knows when to let up. His California cool demeanor on the Seahawks sideline can’t help but filter down to his players.
“He’s a great guy to play for,’’ said ex-Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett, who has 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries during Seattle’s postseason roll.
“He does a great job of getting us ready every week, getting us ready for the game and getting us to understand what’s going on. Growing up and watching USC and seeing how he works with those guys, I knew what type of guy he was, but it’s even better now.”
Schneider was asked when he knew Carroll was different.
“Right away,’’ he said. “Our families weren’t there, so we spent the first four months together the whole time. To his credit, he had worked for a number of different people and he really wanted to make it a special relationship. It just worked out great. We just spent so much time together, listening to music, studying, getting to know who he was as a person.’’
You can call Carroll a new-age thinker, but give Fox some credit for trying.
“Coach is pretty hip,’’ Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “When he walks through the locker room and hears our music, he bops his head a little bit. He’s saying some of the words. He might listen to Fleetwood Mac on his alone time, but when he’s with us, he’ll change it up.”