Although the two will play for the Lombardi Trophy, their paths to the Super Bowl were quite different. Manning is the proverbial prototype quarterback. The son of an NFL quarterback, Manning is 6'5 with a laser rocket arm. Listed at a generous 5'11, Wilson doesn't fit the prototype size. Many have said he's too short to play quarterback in the NFL. He's done well to nullify those concerns, but it hasn't been easy.
Wilson racked up accolades during his high school career at Collegiate High School and led his team to a state championship. He received offers from North Carolina State and Duke, eventually choosing the Wolfpack. After a redshirt year, Wilson wasted little time making his mark at the college level. He played his way into the starting role as a freshman and led NC State to four straight wins to close the year.
He enjoyed similar success during the next two seasons. His size became less and less of a concern as he continued to put up prolific and spectacularly efficient numbers. While he was a dual-threat quarterback, he was also a dual-sport athlete, and a good one. The Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Following his junior season, Wilson said he wanted to spend the summer concentrating on baseball to ultimately make a decision on which sport he wanted to pursue professionally. Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien wanted Wilson to be fully committed to football and decided to move on without him.
Had Wilson excelled at baseball in the summer of 2011, there is a very good chance he wouldn't be taking the field on Sunday. Fortunately for the Seahawks, he didn't. Wilson hit .230 in Class-A and opted to go back to football. Having already graduated from NC State, Wilson was free to transfer to any school. After some back-and-forth, he landed at Wisconsin where he could run a pro-style offense. It proved to be an excellent decision. He was more efficient than ever and led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl.
Despite the success as a passer in two different offenses, Wilson was again doubted. He was too short to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. There was no mold, no model for a quarterback his size. It only takes one person to believe and for Wilson, that was Seattle general manager John Schneider. Schneider became Wilson's biggest supporter, selling Pete Carroll on his talent. According to Carroll, Schneider wanted to draft Wilson in the second round to avoid losing him. The Seahawks eventually grabbed him in the third round.
Seattle received its share of criticism for the pick. Seattle had just signed Matt Flynn to a lucrative contract, so why "waste" a pick on Wilson? Those questions didn't last long. Wilson entered training camp No. 3 on the depth chart behind Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson. By Week 3 of the preseason, he was the starter.
With a great defense and solid rushing attack in place, Wilson fell into a perfect situation. His ability to limit mistakes, connect on big plays and make crucial plays in crucial moments was exactly what the Seahawks needed. Seattle went from 7-9 to 11-5 and into the playoffs. Wilson tied Manning's NFL rookie record for touchdown passes while also ranking among the league's best in passer rating and yards per attempt. Seattle won a playoff game and nearly knocked off Atlanta with Wilson throwing for 385 yards and leading a massive second-half comeback.
This season proved to be more of the same. Seattle has the No. 1 defense in the NFL and is a run-first team. Wilson was even more efficient. He became the first quarterback to post a passer rating of 100.0 or higher in each of his first two seasons. His passing totals went down as the season went on, but he finished fourth in YPA. His ability to create plays with his legs and arm helped Seattle pull off comebacks against Houston and Tampa Bay. The Seahawks finished the regular season 13-3 and clinched home-field advantage.
The recipe for Seattle remains the same. Play defense and run the football. Wilson, however, makes the entire operation go. Even without prolific numbers, he does just enough. Make the one throw the Seahawks need or scramble for the one first-down run. He's been called a lot of things during his career -- too short, a game manager, etc -- and now on Sunday he'll have the chance to add Super Bowl champion to that list.