It's been 320 days (and counting) since the 2015 NFL league year began.
Teams spent the offseason rebuilding, preparing, and planning for the upcoming season with the hopes that the culmination of their efforts would lead to one final road trip to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX. Players and coaches trudged through mini-camps, OTA's, training camp, and preseason to prepare for a grueling 17-week marathon for a coveted playoff berth.
Twelve teams earned a spot in the postseason, but only two get an invite to the big dance. On Sunday, the NFL's two best teams will square off in what fans across the world hope will be on of the greatest Super Bowl matchups of all-time.
The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks don't have much of a storied rivalry - but specific instances from the recent past combined with the high stakes will turn the two sides into fierce rivals on Sunday evening, if only for a couple of hours.
With the big game just days away, the excitement has become palpable, the hype train is barrelling down the tracks, and the entire football world's focus has turned to Glendale.
So, what can we expect come kickoff?
4 Setting the Stage
As was mentioned, these two franchises don't exactly have a most riveting history against each other. Through sixteen all-time matchups, both teams sit at .500 with eight wins apiece. The one matchup that still holds some significance is the Seahawks 24-23 home win over the Patriots in December of 2012. None of the receivers who caught touchdown passes in that game will be on the field on Sunday, but several key members of the cast will be returning for the sequel, notably Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Rob Gronkowski, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
The first week of the Super Bowl "break" is usually a quiet one - the Pro Bowl is on the horizon (so interest levels are low) and not much else is going on. This year, though, the national media goes to bed every night and thanks Bill Belichick and the Patriots for the deflated footballs scandal that has "rocked" the NFL and been the hottest topic in the news, let alone just the sports world. While it would be foolish to expect this to affect the Patriots on Sunday, it will no doubt continue to be on the front burner right up until kickoff.
3 Ending the Losing Streak: How the Patriots Can Win Super Bowl #4
It seems like a lifetime ago that Tom Brady was an up-and-coming hotshot on the fast track to stardom. Fast-forward 11 years since his last Super Bowl victory and we have a first-ballot Hall of Famer with something to prove. Tom Brady has become a walking, talking, smiling oxymoron, and there's no doubt that it eats him up everyday (you can be sure of that because he still hasn't gotten over being a sixth-round pick, apparently). With a victory this Sunday, Brady can finally silence the few remaining doubters who believe he is nothing more than a good quarterback who lucked into a perfect situation back in the early 2000's.
He'll need a lot of help if he's going to pull this off, though.
Can't confirm whether or not Brady still has nightmares or not, but if he does I'd imagine the plot of his terrifying dreams have something to do with an oncoming pass-rusher, probably Michael Strahan or Justin Tuck, who at the last second turns into Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett or Bruce Irvin. Brady and the Pats could have racked up an unprecedented five Super Bowl championships in the span of 11 years had it not been for those pesky Giants - the good news is that they won't have to deal with Big Blue this time around. The bad news is the defense they are about to face off against might be better than anything the Giants threw at them in 2007 or 2011.
If the Patriots are going to win this game, it's going to come down to protecting Brady on the offensive side of the ball and forcing the Seahawks to win the game by throwing the football. The blueprint on beating Brady in a big game is out - get in his face and he'll sucuumb to the pressure. We saw it in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, and we may very well see it again if the Patriots big men can't hold off Seattle's pass rush. Brady can get the ball out of his hands quickly, but against a defense boasting the league's best secondary, it will be difficult for wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola to separate from coverage. The extra second that might take will either mean a big play for the Patriots - thanks to some nice blocking up front - or it'll end with Brady on the ground, which will spell doom for New England if it starts happening often.
Tom Brady can pick apart any defence - he just needs the time to do it. We'll find out on Sunday if his blockers are up to the task.
Defensively, the Patriots are in better shape than most might think. Even though New England's pass defense was below-average during the season, the presence of Darrelle Revis practically erases one side of the football field. The trio of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Luke Willson isn't scaring anyone, either.
Of course, Marshawn Lynch and the threat of Russell Wilson running the football are very scary, so the Patriots will have to make a concerted effort to shut down - or at least limit - the Seahawks vaunted rushing attack if they have any chance of winning this game. The Patriots did have the NFL's ninth best rush-defence during the regular season, so they'll need that unit at their top of their game on Sunday. If the Pats contain Beast Mode and keep Wilson in the pocket, they'll have a much better chance of knocking off the defending champs and regaining the crown they've been desperately chasing since 2004.
2 Defending the Title: Seahawks Must Bring the Boom to Go Back-to-Back
The Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl by the skin of their teeth, but that doesn't matter anymore. While they certainly had some luck in escaping the NFC Championship game with a victory, they aren't clumsily stumbling their way into Arizona - the defending champs have their swagger back, and they're trotting into Glendale ready to walk out with another title.
If the Seahawks are going to become the first team to repeat since the Patriots did it in 2003 and 2004, they're going to have to come out on top in several facets of Sunday's game.
For starters, their top-ranked rushing offense will have to dominate Sunday's contest. Granted, that's a no-brainer - but it still needs to happen. Russell Wilson has proven he can find a way to pull victories out of the abyss, but if the Patriots find a way to get an early lead and force the Seahawks to abandon the run, they'll find themselves in a whole world of trouble. No one is doubting his talent, but while the win-loss record in the playoffs is impressive, Wilson's numbers don't suggest he's the main reason his Seahawks teams have been successful in postseason play. In seven career playoff games, Wilson has thrown more than 30 passes and for over 300 yards just once - that was in 2012, in his only playoff loss, to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Seahawks success is based on a strong run game and a stifling defense, and that's what will win them Sunday's game - not a game-plan predicated on Wilson going completing 30 of 40 passes for 350 yards and 3 passing touchdowns. Wilson's role might be magnified in a late-game drive like it was against Green Bay last weekend, but no one is going to be mistaking him for Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.
Luckily for Wilson, if there's a team that can win with a running back and a defense in 2015, it's the Seattle Seahawks. It's what won them Super Bowl 48, and it'll be what will pace them in Super Bowl 49.
It's fair to assume Marshawn Lynch will get a boatload of touches in this game - if all goes well for Seattle he'll will the Seahawks down the field, chew clock, and hopefully punch in a score or two. It won't be easy against Vince Wilfork and Co., but if anyone can do it, it's Lynch. On the defensive side of the ball, the Seahawks main concern will be Rob Gronkowski. Julian Edelman will have to be watched closely, but as a possession receiver, Edelman's potential impact - especially against this secondary - pales to what Gronkowski can do. If the Seahawks linebacking corps of K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin are incapable of slowing down Gronk, the Patriots will utilize him early and often - if that happens, and the defense is forced to shift more attention to him, guys like Brandon LaFell and Shane Vereen could find openings in a preoccupied Seattle defense.
Of course, the Seattle front seven will also have to contend with the Patriots version of Lynch. LeGarette Blount is a heavy load, and even a stout defence like Seattle's can have difficulty with big, strong backs. The Seahawks' stout run-defense has faltered a bit in the playoffs, allowing 132 and 135 yards to the Carolina Panthers and the Green Bay Packers over the last two games, respectively, so the Patriots go into this one knowing that there are running lanes available - they'll just have to find them. If the Seahawks manage to revert the their usual form, though, even a big man like Blount will be hard-pressed to gain many yards on the ground Sunday night.
1 The Prediction
Based on everything touched on above, Sunday's tilt should be a fascinating matchup - thanks to the fascinating matchups that will take place all over the field.
These two franchises know what it takes to win the big one, and neither will come into the game looking to play trepidatiously - both will come out firing from the get go. While this might lead to a high-scoring affair, it's hard to imagine either team racking up many points, barring a Denver Broncos-like performance from either defense.
One thing we do know is that late Sunday night, there will be blue confetti falling from the heights of University of Phoenix Stadium. The question is, will it be accompanied by Patriots' red, or Seahawks' green?
Seattle 26, New England 21
At the end of the day, the old adage "defense wins championships" continues to resonate, even in this era of offense-happy football. The Seahawks will find a way to disrupt and shut down Brady the way they shut down Peyton Manning a year ago - they'll probably score some points, too - and the "Thunder and Lightning" combo of Lynch and Wilson will do enough on the ground to get the victory. Keep in mind that in each of the Patriots four losses, they allowed over 100 yards rushing, and overall had a 3-4 record when giving up over 100 yards - the three wins were against the 5-11 Chicago Bears and the 4-12 New York Jets (twice).
Pete Carroll gets his "revenge" on Robert Kraft and the Patriots organization, Russell Wilson solidifies his spot in the discussion of all-time great quarterbacks, and the Legion of Boom goes down as one of the greatest defenses in the history of the National Football League.
The Seahawks and the 12th Man revel as defending champs. The Patriots and their fans go home feeling deflated.