Super Bowl XLIX takes place on February 1st in Arizona and despite what Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin might want to believe, these are the two teams we thought would be here at the end. For the second year in a row the top seed in the AFC and NFC have advanced to play in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks are looking to become the first repeat champions since the team they’re playing achieved that feat in 2003 and 2004. The Seahawks are looking like the team of destiny after beating the Packers in one of the most unbelievable collapses in NFL history. After Russell Wilson threw his 4th interception with just over 5 minutes to play, the Seahawks had a 0.7% chance of winning per ESPN stats but managed to pull out the win in overtime after a series of inexplicable Packers blunders and a Jermaine Kearse redemption. The Seahawks bring their vaunted defense that finished the regular season number one in defensive DVOA, led by one of the best secondary’s ever in the NFL.
On the other side, Tom Brady, who is playing in a record 6th Super Bowl leads the Patriots who blew out the Colts on the strength of their running game, stout defense and ability to throw deflated footballs. There will be no shortage of story lines going into this game, the media will be excited to have two weeks of Richard Sherman and Bill Belichick quotes. Adding fuel to the fire, earlier this week the NFL concluded an investigation and found that 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in the AFC championship win were deflated to give Brady an advantage when throwing in the rough weather. The Patriots are not new to scandal but this story has taken away from what will be a great Super Bowl between two very evenly matched teams. With the best team from each conference playing and very little separating each other, this game will come down to which X-factors show up on gameday.
12 New England Patriots
11 Vince Wilfork
Seattle comes into the Super Bowl with Marshawn Lynch and the best rushing offense this season in the NFL. Last week against the Packers, Lynch rushed for 157 yards on 25 carries (6.3 yards per carry), including a 24-yard touchdown in the 4th quarter to give the Seahawks the lead. The Patriots run defense has struggled a bit as Wilfork has slowly returned to form from his achilles injury last season. The Patriots finished in the middle of the pack this season in rush defense (14th in the league). While the Patriots secondary should be able to hold up against Seattle's receivers New England will need a vintage run-stopping Wilfork performance to help hold Marshawn Lynch from unleashing beast mode.
10 Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots had 40 sacks this season, led by Rob Ninkovich with 8 and Chandler Jones with 6. While their secondary holds up well and gives them a chance, their pass rush has struggled thus far in the playoffs registering 0 sacks against either the Colts or Ravens these last two weeks. While getting pressure on the quarterback is always important, these two pass rushers will need to focus this week on remaining disciplined and setting the edge in order to contain the outside runs of Marshawn Lynch and more importantly the mobility of Russell Wilson, who thrives outside of the pocket. The coverage ability of the Patriots defense and the lack of breakaway speed in the Seattle wide receiving core should give the Patriots pass rush time and they need to get to Wilson.
9 Brandon Browner’s Love for Pass Interference
The ex-Seahawk has brought his physical demeanor to the Patriots secondary and along with it his penchant for penalties. Brandon Browner was flagged this year for five pass interference calls and 15 penalties overall, which is even more impressive considering he missed the first six games of the season on suspension. In the Patriots game against the Ravens, Browner was flagged for a 35-yards pass interference on Torrey Smith which was declined because Smith caught the ball anyway. The Seahawks offense struggles to throw the ball down the field and should not be given any assistance in creating big plays by penalties. Browner will likely be matched up against the Seahawks third receiver and tight ends but his tendency to give up big penalties may give a boost to a passing offense that did not look impressive for most of last week.
8 Play Action Passing
The Patriots more so than any team in the league can win games in multiple ways. Against the Ravens their run game was almost non-existent as they knew their best approach would be to attack the Ravens questionable DBs. Against the Colts however they were able to dominant the line of scrimmage and run the ball with Legarrette Blount. The Patriots ability to both run and pass successfully is crucial to their success in this game. Their run game is important as their offense struggles with deep passes and big plays but thrives on ball control and moving the chains. More importantly, running the ball opens up the Patriots play-action where Brady has succeeded over the years as one the best play-action passers in the league. The Seattle secondary is difficult to beat, so play action passes in the middle of the field will be the Patriots' best option.
7 Crossing Routes
The Patriots have been an intermediate passing team since Randy Moss left. Their receiving core is led by their tight end Rob Gronkowski who excels at seam routes and long crossing patterns. Similarly, Julian Edelmen is at his best with the ball in his hands in space on crossing routes. For the Patriots to throw effectively against the Seahawks they will need their offensive line to hold up long enough for these crossing routes to develop.
The Patriots receivers will need to be able to adjust to the physical defense as they will take some big hits crossing the middle with the likes of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas waiting. The staunch secondary of the Seahawks, led by Sherman and Thomas excel at throws deep down the field and to the outside so the Patriots will try to target the middle of the field. The Patriots' offensive rhythm will depend on the offensive line holding up for these slower routes to develop and their receivers gaining some needed yards after the catch.
6 Seattle Seahawks
5 Health of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas
The Seahawks won their game against the Packers but they had to do with two of their best hobbled by injuries. Richard Sherman hurt his elbow towards the end of the game and was noticeably affected despite the Packers not seeming willing to test him. Sherman has said he will play the Super Bowl but it will be interesting to see if the elbow injury plays a role in his ability to tackle and make a play on the ball as he does so well.
Earl Thomas also injured himself mid-game, dislocating his shoulder. Thomas is the most important player in their secondary as he has more range than any safety in the league and will play a crucial role in accounting for Gronkowski and Edelmen in the middle of the field. Thomas will also be playing, and both players were involved in their first practices this week but the Patriots do well to attack the weaknesses of other teams and that intimidating secondary may have become a little easier to attack.
4 Kick Return Game
Doug Baldwin's fumble in the NFC championship punctuated a season where the Seahawks struggled to return kicks. The Seahawks started this season with their All-Pro safety Earl Thomas returning punts before quickly realizing after some big hits and a key fumble that this was not the best use of his ability.
Seattle then moved to using their speedy receiver Paul Richardson as their kick return specialist but he was injured for the season and they have been scrambling since. Last Super Bowl Seattle's special teams came up big with the Percy Harvin return TD but it looks as though that advantage may not be around this year. Doug Baldwin needs to put the Seahawks in better field possession, especially as their team can struggle at times to move the ball. Most importantly, their returners need to hold on to the ball. They were lucky last week when the Packers settled for a field goal after Baldwin's fumble. They may not be so lucky if they do that with the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
3 Interior Pass Rush
Tom Brady has been around long enough for teams to know that the blueprint for beating him and the Patriots is pressure up the middle and press-man coverage on the receivers. Brady lacks the mobility to throw well outside the pocket and he relies on his ability to move up in the pocket to make throws. Brady also excels when he is blitzed because he is so good at recognizing the blitz and getting the ball out quickly to receivers on hot routes.
Seattle will need to pressure Brady with its front four and make it difficult for him to set his feet in the pocket. The Patriots will complete their share of quick hitches and out-routes but to get big chunks of yardage they need to give Brady time and Seattle needs to make him make tough throws under duress against their impressive secondary. Look no further than the New York Giants' execution of this against Brady in the Patriots' last two Super Bowl losses.
Despite being considered a gimmick by some, when the defending Super Bowl champions needed to go down the field last week against the Packers to make their return to the Super Bowl, they turned to the read-option to get them there. Seattle is a team specifically well-suited for the read-option as it highlights the best skills of its best offensive players, Lynch and Wilson.
Wilson excels at throwing outside the pocket and taking off himself. Lynch can break tackles as good as any runner in the league and is great at running outside and inside the tackles. In last week's win against the Packers Lynch ran for 105 yards, including his 24-yard touchdown, on a read-option play. Wilson supplemented this with two carries for 16 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots will need to have a spy on Wilson, likely their athletic linebacker Jamie Collins, and make this Seattle offense beat them with traditional pocket passing.
1 Seahawks Run Defense
The Seahawks defense has very few weaknesses but in comparison to their pass defense, this is a team that you can run against. The Seahawks lost some key contributers in the middle of their defense including Brandon Mebane who was playing at a Pro Bowl level before going down with injury. This offseason they also lost Chris Clemons and Red Bryant as salary cap causalities that happen after a Super Bowl win.
This is relative, as they still finished the season as one of the best run defenses but they did give up 4.5 yards per carry last week to the Packers and the Patriots come into this game very confident in their ability to run the ball. If the Seahawks can stop the run and force the Patriots to throw deep into contested coverage they will have a great shot at repeating as champions.
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