Analysis By: Anthony Kuehn
Every year the buildup to the Super Bowl is a spectacle that features a lot of extraneous noise, but this season has taken it to the next level. The Deflategate scandal (why haven’t we come up with a new way to label scandals in the last 40 years?) dominated much of the media attention last week and Marshawn Lynch’s press conferences have grabbed the attention this week. Lost in all this meaningless drivel is one of the more interesting matchups in Super Bowl history.
The two top seeds are meeting in the Super Bowl for the 4th time since 1990 and for the second consecutive year. Both teams absolutely steam rolled the second half of the regular season, cruised to one easy playoff win and had a dramatic come from behind playoff win. Both teams have massive historical legacies on the line in this game as well.
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The Seahawks are looking to cement their dynasty status by becoming the first back-to-back champions since…the New England Patriots a little over a decade ago. The Patriots are trying to add a 4th championship to their unprecedented run that looks a little less impressive since they have lost their last two Super Bowls.
These teams have drastically contrasting styles and they were built to defeat different foes. The Patriots retooled their defense to combat Peyton Manning and the high flying passing game of the Denver Broncos. They spent big on Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to reinforce the secondary and traded for Akeem Ayers to bolster their pass rush. They now face the Seahawks who lack star power at receiver and rarely throw downfield, but are built around a power running game which is the Patriots’ Achilles’ heel.
The Seahawks have built a stifling defense designed to stuff the run and take away the deep passing game favored by anticipated road blocks like the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens. The one area the Seahawks can be vulnerable is to the short spread out passing game, which New England heavily features.
The Patriots are known for their cerebral and strategic approach to the game as they develop wildly mutating game plans designed to attack and exploit each individual opponent. Defensively, they play multiple fronts and design their game plans to neutralize what their opponent does best. Offensively, they morph from one extreme to another when necessary. One week they will throw 60 passes, the next week they could run 50 times.
The Seahawks are the exact opposite. While the Patriots out-scheme, the Seahawks out-muscle. Their offense revolves around the running game and their ability to impose their will. Defensively, they play a lot of simple coverages and attack the quarterback with their front four.
Both teams feature masterful motivators Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick, but their styles contrast. Belichick is a very aggressive coach that will not hesitate to do the unconventional (odd formations, aggressive 4th down calls and varying the tempo of the game). Carroll is a more conservative coach that plays things closer to the vest.
These dynamics make this a very difficult game to predict; both teams are capable of winning big. Both teams’ strengths match up well with the other’s weaknesses. Both teams have proven that they can protect those weaknesses when it matters most. Most importantly, both teams stood up to enormous expectations this season and rebounded from struggles in an emphatic manner.
Bill Belichick’s top priority is going to be forcing the Seahawks into 3rd and long situations where the Seahawks tend to struggle. It is pretty safe to assume that the Patriots are going to be gearing up to stop the run since their secondary can handle the Seahawks receivers one on one with very little help. I expect the Patriots to do more than simply bring an eighth man into the box; they will likely use different personnel groupings and various run blitzes to avoid tipping their hand. Personally, I think this game will be defined by how successful they are at achieving this goal.
Offensively for the Patriots, I think they will be looking for unconventional ways to use Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is an absolute nightmare for defenses due to his speed, size and ability to line up all over the field. The Seahawks feature one of the best coverage middle linebackers in the game in Bobby Wagner and the most physical strong safety in the league in Kam Chancellor.
If there is a team that has the ability to limit Gronkowski’s impact over the middle of the field, it is Seattle. I think Belichick knows that the best way to maximize impact for the star tight end is going to come from moving him around to generate more favorable matchups.
Julian Edelman is an important part of the Patriots’ attack, but I think his impact could be minimal. Seattle possesses incredible speed and size on defense and they physically intimidate and dominate receivers that come over the middle. The Seahawks set a physical tone right off the bat in the Super Bowl last year delivering crushing hits on Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas that took them out of their comfort zones. They are both significantly larger and more physical than Edelman, so if Edelman will have an impact, it will be more likely to come attacking the flats rather than the middle.
Green Bay was able to establish the ground game early against Seattle in the NFC Championship game, but Seattle adjusted and shut them down in the second half. I think the Patriots would like to establish the run, but I am not convinced they will be able to. LeGarrette Blount is as physical a back as there is in the NFL and he is capable of taking on the Seahawks punishing defense, but they are also very quick and rally to the ball which will neutralize his power. I expect heavy doses of Shane Vereen in the passing game, in the slot and out of the backfield to attack the flats.
Seattle plays a lot of 3-deep coverage, which is vulnerable against passes to the flats, so I expect the Patriots to focus on that area of the field. The Seahawks are fast and excellent tacklers, so the Patriots won’t pick up big yardage there, but it could open up downfield shots to Gronkowski.
Offensively for Seattle, they will be prepared for Belichick to focus on taking away the running game. Trying to stop Marshawn Lynch with some scheme is a lot tougher than stopping other backs because Lynch is so physical and tough to bring down. I expect Seattle to incorporate Russell Wilson into the running game more than usual to force New England to commit a defender to him, leaving one fewer to defend Lynch.
If I’m Pete Carroll, I would look to utilize the pop pass off the read option again like they did in Week 1 against the Packers. The pop pass is basically a triple option for the quarterback. It starts with a read option run, so the quarterback can read the defense and decide whether to hand off to the running back or keep it. If Wilson keeps it, he then reads the cornerback on the side he’s running to. If the corner comes up to tackle him, he throws the ball to the receiver that was just abandoned. If the corner stays in coverage, Wilson keeps it and runs. The Seahawks scored an easy touchdown in Week 1, but I haven’t seen them use it since.
Even if the Seahawks mix in the pop pass, it will likely just be an occasional play and not a staple of the offense. First, it’s a lot of reading by Wilson and the Patriots will be prepared for it since Belichick has spent a lot of time researching the various option plays. However, Seattle should have it ready in case the situation arises.
I don’t see a scenario where the Seahawks can win the game relying on their passing game. The Patriots’ secondary is so good and the Seahawks derive so much of their success in the passing game off defenses overcommitting to the running game. The Patriots have the personnel to defend the Seahawks one on one, so I really don’t expect the passing game to be an area the Seahawks can exploit.
If the Patriots can build an early lead and force the Seahawks to pass, this game could get out of hand quickly. By the same token, if the Seahawks establish the run and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines while giving their defense time to rest, it could get ugly for the Patriots quickly.
Tom Brady really only struggles when he’s facing a lot of pressure up the middle. He excels at side stepping the outside rush and buying time in the pocket, but if the pocket is collapsing he usually can’t escape and has to force throws or take sacks.
Wilson gives the Seahawks an edge in that regard because he is so mobile that he can evade pressure and make plays outside the pocket. The Patriots will focus on keeping him in the pocket more than trying to sack him.
So what does this all mean in terms of a prediction? Generally speaking in a game projected to be this close I look at three factors: the coaching, the quarterback and the psychological edge. Bill Belichick is a better coach than Pete Carroll. That is not a knock against Carroll in any way, but strategically Belichick is the best in the business.
Tom Brady is a better pure passer than Russell Wilson, while Wilson is by far the more dangerous runner. Both players are great leaders, both players have won at the highest level and both players have a lot on the line. Brady’s legacy as the best quarterback of his era is at stake and there is a good argument that a 4th Super Bowl could vault him into the greatest of all time.
Wilson is often seen as the third component of the Seahawks’ success. Lynch and the defense usually draw top billing and with another Super Bowl win, Wilson has to be considered among the leaders of a new generation of NFL quarterbacks. With the rapid decline of Peyton Manning fresh in everybody’s mind, it is reasonable to question how long Brady has physically. Bill Belichick also prefers to cut the cord with players before they decline rather than after, so it’s reasonable to question whether this is Brady’s last shot.
The Seahawks played their worst game in years against the Packers and got a huge scare two weeks ago. They shouldn’t come out flat again. They have fully embraced the “us against the world” mentality again as they prepare to take on a veteran team with more experience for the second year.
The Patriots’ dynasty has lasted longer than almost anybody could have expected. They are definitely closer to the finish line than the starting line. That type of desperation is hard to beat. Belichick is the best strategic mind in the game and nobody responds to controversy better than him. 14 point underdogs to the Rams in 2001? Biggest Super Bowl upset in the modern era. Spygate? Followed by a 16-0 regular season. Belichick’s entire legacy is being questioned again and the Patriots’ window is closing. It’s impossible to say that doesn’t give them the psychological edge.
Despite all three of my go to indicators pointing in the Patriots’ favor, it’s so hard to pick against a team that is physically capable of dominating their opponent. The Seahawks let you know what is coming and dare you to stop it, and few ever do.
I am going to go with the line on the Patriots in this one, even though I think the Seahawks have a better shot of winning. Nobody prepares better than Bill Belichick and I don’t believe there is a coach that readies his team for the situational moments that make all the difference in close games. The only thing that has kept the Patriots from winning their last two Super Bowls was two of the flukiest plays in NFL history. I think they have enough chance to take it on Sunday that the line makes sense.
Wes Burns has more than a decade’s worth of experience as a writer, researcher, and analyst in the legal online betting industry and is co-founder of OnlineBettingSites.com. Wes approaches his work from the viewpoint of players.