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Super Bowl XLVIII: Expect refs to be fair to Seahawks this time

NFL referee Terry McAulay at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 6, 2013
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In light of Seattle's only other Super Bowl experience, there is one element of the game every single observer will watch very closely Sunday.

Everyone outside of Pittsburgh will admit the Seahawks were unfairly judged in Super Bowl XL. Even commissioner Paul Tagliabue trashed a fine letter he had prepared for Mike Holmgren after the Seahawks' coach had publicly ridiculed the officials, and referee Bill Leavy actually apologized to the franchise when he was in Seattle several years later.

With that background and the added problems the league's officials encountered throughout this season, Super Bowl XLVIII referee Terry McAulay figures to be under a very bright spotlight.

So what can the Seahawks and Denver Broncos expect?

McAulay's usual crew called the fourth-fewest penalties this season (per ESPN Stats & Info), so he generally seems to let the teams play.

He was the lead official in Seattle's divisional playoff win against New Orleans earlier this month, and his all-star playoff crew went easier on the Hawks than his usual group. The Hawks, who were penalized 10 times for 70 yards by McAulay's regular crew in Week 7 at Arizona, were flagged just six times in the Saints game.

In both contests, McAulay's officials seemed to focus on line play. The Saints game featured four holding calls on Seattle (one on a punt return, two on running plays and one on defense) and an illegal use of hands by a defensive lineman. The Saints had two holding calls.

One key in the Super Bowl will be how McAulay's crew calls the marquee matchup: Denver's top-ranked offense against Seattle's No. 1 defense. Denver loves to run picks out of bunch formations, and the Hawks love to play very aggressively in coverage. That adds up to some very physical pass plays.

The Hawks were nailed for two pass interference infractions and two defensive holds at Arizona, but McAulay's playoff crew did not call a single foul against the Seattle secondary in the Saints game.

The officials have generally called fewer fouls in the playoffs, and you have to expect that to continue in the biggest game of the season.

On top of that, whether he has been told by the league office or not, McAulay has to know his crew needs to make sure this game is officiated more evenly than Super Bowl XL -- or the NFL will never hear the end of it.