In New York, during one of those endless Super Bowl interviews, Peyton Manning was asked this week which defenders gave him the most trouble.

"Zach Thomas was one," the Denver quarterback said.

Thomas is told this. He chuckles.

"Please don't make it sound like I had any secrets," the former Dolphins linebacker said. "I didn't."

Seattle's top-rated defense will search for some. But what they're doing for one Sunday Thomas did for 12 games over eight years against Manning. He might not have secrets. But he gained knowledge in the way the best do against the best.

There was the week of preparation ("I'd grind," Thomas says). There was the decoding of Manning's famous pre-snap routine of secret words and hand signals ("A work of art.")

Perhaps what sums up Thomas' 12 games against Manning best were the smirks. In the middle of the field. In the middle of their personal chess match. He studied Manning so much through he years, he once, "got in a groove," during a game in Indianapolis, and yelled the coming plays at the line as Peyton called them.

"He called time-out," Thomas says, "and as he walking to the sideline looks at me and we kind of traded smirks."

Another time, in a game in Miami, Thomas felt out of position all game. He was a step behind. Linemen had angles to block him. One simple football key is quarterbacks run plays away from the unblocked safety. Thomas planned for that.

"I'd always cheat away from that safety," he said. "But Peyton was running at the unblocked safety and Edgerrin [James] was having a big game. I started figuring it out.

"One play, I waited until the last second and then cheated toward the safety, because I just knew he was running that way. That play, he ran away from the safety. I was out of position again. I think it went for 20-something yards.

"I was pissed. I looked over and he looked at me and had this little smirk on his face."

Manning was the first pick overall and Thomas a fifth-round pick whose initial NFL goal was to make the team. But physical talent isn't nearly as interesting as mental talent. Both Manning and Thomas were bent that way.

Even now, five years into retirement, Thomas watches Manning whenever possible. He watched Denver's AFC Championship game against New England alone, and rewound plays repeatedly, to break down Manning.