Super Bowl XLIX Preview

Revis

^For the first time since 2005, the Patriots may have
enough talent on defense to win the Super Bowl.

Seattle Seahawks (14-4) vs. New England Patriots (14-4)

What you need to know and what you need to avoid saying.

Don’t be “that guy.” 

The Best Players:

QB Tom Brady is playing in his 6th Super Bowl, and regardless of tonight’s outcome, he’ll go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, if not the best of all time. His primary target is TE Rob Gronkowski, who is not only the best tight end in football, but arguably the toughest offensive player to match up against in the league. The duo has a great rapport, as Brady’s numbers are astronomically better when playing with a healthy Gronk. This is Gronk’s first Super Bowl (he missed the Patriots’ second loss to the Giants a few years ago due to a broken forearm).

Takeaway: Brady played a large portion of last season without Gronk, and although Brady was still good, he could not overcome the lacking supporting cast sans Gronk (2014 Saints, anyone?). A healthy Gronk is both a threat to score, and opens up the offense for his teammates to make plays.

About halfway through his rookie year in 2012, Pete Carroll took the training wheels off QB Russell Wilson, unleashing what become the best duel-threat passer in the NFL. Wilson’s biggest strength is his ability to buy time in the pocket or extend plays by escaping the pocket, which requires outstanding awareness and mobility. Wilson’s running prowess has allowed the Seahawks to run the read-option, which freezes up defensive ends and opens bigger holes and running lanes for Marshawn Lynch. Although Lynch is practically impossible to arm-tackle and always keeps his feet churning while wrapped up, it’s important to understand that “Beast Mode” had never averaged more than 4.2 yards per carry (the league average mark) before Wilson became’s Seattle’s quarterback.

Takeaway: Lynch is a tough, downhill runner, but there’s no “Beast Mode” without Wilson under center. But it’s the dominant combination of Wilson and Lynch is the bread and butter of Seattle’s offense.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis (#24) is one of three “shutdown corners” in the NFL right now (along with opposing CB Richard Sherman and Denver’s Chris Harris). The Patriots signed Revis to a 1-year deal last offseason because Bill Belichick, more than anyone, understood the difficulty scheming around him twice a year when Revis played for the New York Jets. Revis’ coverage can free up a safety to help in run support, which will certainly help against the mobile Russell Wilson. On the other side, CB Richard Sherman (#25) is more famous for his off-field antics, but on the field he’s certainly a top-3 cornerback in the NFL. He does not move around the formation and follow particular WRs as much as Revis, but Sherman’s incredible combination of length, athleticism, hands and speed on the left side effectively erases a large portion of the field.

Takeaway: Over the years, it’s become a strangely popular opinion that either, or both, of these guys are overrated. If this statement is made at your Super Bowl party, know that the person who said it is the only overrated person involved. Sherman and Revis are two of the best corners in the game.

Free safety Earl Thomas (#29) is without a doubt the league’s best safety. He boasts amazing instincts, outstanding range to cover large areas of the field, and the athleticism to both defend the run and the pass well. Thomas may be Seattle’s most valuable defensive player. Patriots’ FS Devin McCourty (#32) gets no love, but the converted corner has developed into the NFL’s second best free safety. A very smart football player, McCourty rarely makes mistakes, but is one of the most under-appreciated players in the game.

Takeaway: While people are caught up in the Revis vs. Sherman best cornerback debate, don’t forget that the NFL’s best two safeties are also squaring off in this contest.

Patriots’ inside linebacker Jamie Collins has blossomed in his second season. He displays great versatility and a lightning quick first step. Also an outstanding pass rusher, Collins is disruptive on running plays and athletic enough to cover. The Patriots do a great job of mixing up his assignments so the opposing offense never really knows what he’s doing on a given play. Seahawks’ ILB Bobby Wagner is extremely fast and very valuable to Seahawks’ run defense. He always seems to be a step ahead of players trying to block him, displaying the instincts and quickness to repeatedly blow plays up in the backfield.

Takeaway: Two of the Seahawks four losses came during the 4-game stretch that Bobby Wagner missed due to injuries. Seattle has not lost since he returned. Jamie Collins is an emerging star in this league.

Coaching: 

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is the best in the NFL. Carroll has created the likes of a mini-dynasty, as Seattle has been 11-5 or better in each of the last three seasons, including winning last year’s Super Bowl. He finds ways to win via the traditional model of a strong running game and defense despite the rules and modern era lending itself to a pass-first, quarterback-centered game. Granted, Carroll has a top-10 QB too in Russell Wilson. Carroll still gets the absolute most from his players, bringing an extremely competitive atmosphere to every team practice and even meetings. Players love him. Fans love him. And I imagine there will be a ton of fans in Arizona supporting his team tonight.

What to say about DEFLATE-GATE:

 Today, nothing.

Bill Belichick gets a lot of heat (and as a result, not enough respect) for his “-Gate” controversies, but all that noise is rubbish on Super Bowl Sunday. I’m not going to dive into deflation station in this Super Bowl preview because I don’t want it to take away from what should be a great, evenly-matched game.

But I will say this…

In my opinion, whether or not they choose to admit it, most fans who bring up “Spy Gate” and call for Belichick’s head irrationally want to see New England’s empire fall because they are jealous of the team’s decade-long run of success. New England is the model franchise in the NFL; they are an organization that every other team aspires to emulate. The amount of success this Belichick has achieved is perhaps best illustrated this way by looking at their win/loss record this way:

PATRIOTS RESULTS:

  • 2001: 11-5 – Super Bowl Champions
  • 2002: 9-7
  • 2003: 14-2 – Super Bowl Champions
  • 2004: 14-2 – Super Bowl Champions
  • 2005: 10-6 – Playoffs
  • 2006: 12-4 – Playoffs
  • 2007: 16-0 – Super Bowl Runner-Ups
  • 2008: 11-5
  • 2009: 10-6 – Playoffs
  • 2010: 14-2 – Playoffs
  • 2011: 13-3 – Super Bowl Runner-Ups
  • 2012: 12-4 – Playoffs
  • 2013: 12-4 – Playoffs
  • 2014: 12-4 – Super Bowl Appearance
  • TOTALS: 170-54 (.758)
  • New England has made the playoffs in 12 of the last 14 seasons. Moreover, in one of the two seasons they missed the postseason, the Patriots did not have Tom Brady (IR-Week 1), and in both seasons they missed out on the tournament, the team still had a winning record.

All you need to do is examine those numbers to realize the New England Patriots are machines. Their success in this era is unprecedented, and New England’s consistency of winning in a modern salary cap era designed to promote parody is one of the most impressive accomplishments in all of sports history. No matter how much you hate the Patriots (for winning), their dominance should be neither ignored nor denied… even if biased fans of other teams DON’T WANT to believe it, for whatever reason.

Schedule:

In their last meeting, Russell Wilson led the Seahawks on a game-winning drive in the final seconds to defeat the Patriots 24-23, a game that took place in 2012 (his rookie season).

The Seahawks have not lost since week 12. Their four losses were against the Chargers in week 2, the Cowboys in week 6, the Rams in week 7 (yes, the Seahawks were once 3-3), and the Chiefs in week 11. A common trend among the games was the ability for the opponent to establish the run and stay committed to it throughout the game. The latter task is especially difficult against the Seahawks because they often get early leads, forcing teams to attempt to throw against their top-notch secondary. I expect New England to hit the ground running and stay committed to pounding the rock even if it’s not working. As indicated from Seattle’s four losses, it’s the only way to beat this team.

Likewise, the Patriots had a slow start to their season, losing two of their first four contests in blowout fashions to the Dolphins in week 1 and the Chiefs in week 4. The hideous 14-41 loss in Kansas City is what turned this team around. New England reshuffled its offensive line and found a combination that worked, and Brady began to go on a straight tear. The Patriots’ only other meaningful loss (apart from a week 17 “shut it down” game vs. BUF) came at Green Bay against a Packers team that went 8-0 at home. For what it’s worth, Seattle was able to beat the Packers twice this season, although both were on the road.

Injuries:

The Seahawks’ best defensive tackle, Brandon Mebane, was placed on injured reserve in week 10. The way Seattle’s front-4 has played in his absence is a testament to their deep and talented defensive line rotation. For the Patriots, center Bryan Stork is questionable for this game, shaping up to be a game time decision. He’s a key piece of the Patriots’ running game, and we’ve seen how the Patriots’ O-line has struggled without the continuity this combination has provided in the second half of this season.

Other than that, both teams are very healthy, as most Super Bowl teams seem to be.

Key SEATTLE Player Bios (not listed above):

  • Offensive Weapons
  • WR Doug Baldwin – A solid possession receiver but probably best served as a #2 WR instead of a #1. Shifty and runs good routes. Could give the bigger, more physical Brandon Browner problems if matched up against him, but likely won’t have his way against Darrelle Revis.
  • WR Jermaine Kearse – One dimensional speedy deep threat at this early stage of his career. Would be a nice #3 WR but is playing as a #2 because of rookie Paul Richardson’s injury.
  • TE Luke Willson – Inconsistent but a good athlete. Seahawks like to use him on play-action rollouts.
  • Offensive Line
  • LT Russell Okung – An above-average left tackle, which is the most difficult position to play on the line. Has the physical tools to be elite.
  • C Max Unger – Seattle’s most valuable offensive lineman. The offense was noticeably worse when he missed some regular season games due to injury.
  • Defenders:
  • DE Michael Bennett – all-around great player. Can rush the passer and defend the run.
  • DE Cliff Avril – The best pure pass rusher on the team.
  • WLB K.J. Wright – Outstanding in coverage. Getting better each year.
  • WLB Malcolm Smith – Last year’s Super Bowl MVP is actually not a key player. In fact, he generally sits the bench. But that’s important to know if his name comes up. He’s just a guy.
  • CB Byron Maxwell – A physical and big corner that usually stays on the right side. Will be a top free agent this offseason.
  • CB Tharold Simon – Former LSU Tiger, Simon is the Seahawks’ nickel back. Still young and raw, teams generally try to test him because the ‘Hawks other CBs are so gifted.
  • SS Kam Chancellor – Hard-hitting run defender that plays like a linebacker in the box often. Has gotten better in coverage this season but still could have a tough time against Gronk.
  • Kicker
  • Steven Hauschka – Made 31/37 field goals this season. One of the league’s most reliable kickers.

 

Key PATRIOTS Player Bios (not listed above):

  • Offensive Weapons
  • RB LeGarrette Blount – Elusive for his size and very tough to bring down once he gets an opening, but needs a hole because his vision is lacking.
  • RB Shane Vereen – Somewhat of a scatback, it’s hard to predict when the Patriots will utilize him. He’s an outstanding pass catcher and can be a mismatch for LBs in coverage. He’s not a great runner between the tackles however.
  • WR Julian Edelman – A small, possession WR who is quick-twitched, shifty and tough. He’ll have to be physical tonight, as the Seahawks will likely try to use their size to jam him at the line of scrimmage, disrupting his routes and Brady’s timing.
  • WR Brandon LaFell – A solid #2 WR who is reliable, but only adequate hands. May struggle to get open against Sherman or Maxwell.
  • Offensive Line
  • LT Nate Solder / RT Sebastian Vollmer – Athletic tackle tandem is the strength of the New England line, but they’ll have their hands full against Seattle’s elite pass rush.
  • Defenders
  • DT Vince Wilfork – The key CLOG for New England’s run defense. He’s a 400-pound brick wall that doesn’t offer much by way of pass rush but can stuff up in the middle vs. the run. He’ll be needed to command double teams so other players can find bigger lanes to get to Lynch.
  • OLB Rob Ninkovich – Hustles like a machine, never quits, and tries to outwork you.
  • ILB Dont’a Hightower – A solid thumper inside. Wraps up well and can shed blocks.
  • OLB Chandler Jones – New England’s best pure pass rusher off the edge.
  • CB Brandon Browner – A very big, physical CB who can cover TEs and bigger WRs very well. Struggles against smaller, quick WRs though, and tends to commit fair share of pass interference penalties.
  • Kicker
  • Stephen Gostkowski – Made 35/37 field goals this season. Perhaps the game’s top kicker.

OVERALL OUTLOOK: This is the most evenly-matched Super Bowl I’ve seen on paper in quite some time. Both teams have very strong coaches, quarterbacks, and only one elite offensive weapon (Lynch for SEA, Gronk for NE). Apart from Lynch and Gronk, it’s hard for me to envision other offensive players really having their way against two excellent coverage defenses.

Seattle’s secondary is tops in the league, so New England will have to be able to run the ball, gain around 4 YPC, and stay committed to it throughout the game.. which is very tough to do against this team. Seattle will obviously try to do the same, but New England’s run defense has improved over the second half of the season. The Seahawks were vulnerable to TEs early in the season but have likewise shored up that aspect of their defense, only allowing 1 touchdown from a TE in their last 10 games. As a result, I see this game being very low-scoring and coming down to whoever makes a second half mistake by way of turnover, especially because based on the way these great teams protect the ball, I don’t think there will be many turnovers in this game.

After years of pass-happy, explosive offenses that resulted in great regular season teams but yielded no rings, it seems like Belichick has finally built up the defense, running game, and short, efficient passing game necessary to win the big one, similar to the way his teams did in the dynasty years of 2001, 2003 and 2004.

To me, Seattle is clearly the more talented team. But after the slow start and all of the adversity New England has faced this season, they seem like the team destined raise the Lombardi trophy in the end.

PREDICTION: Patriots 20, Seahawks 18.

TNF Pick’em: 10-1.
Playoff Pick’em: 9-1
Saints Pick’em: Don’t worry about it.

*Photo Credit: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images


Categories: NFL Feature Stories