When the Patriots pass the football
Although the Patriots want to feature a balanced offense, their success throwing the ball will determine whether they win or lose this game. They have the better quarterback in the game in Tom Brady, but they must give him time — something they failed to do in the past two Super Bowl games they played — so he can have a chance to play up to his reputation. He must be able to stay patient against Seattle’s outstanding secondary while enduring a withering rush by the Seattle front. It will be interesting to see who doubles tight end Rob Gronkowski and whether the Patriots can win when he is not the primary target for Brady. Gronkowski is, however, a great red-zone target and a mismatch even when doubled or bracketed. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are possession receivers who are best on crossing routes that sometimes screen off defenders. The Patriots say they will attack all aspects of the Seattle defense, but it’s wise for them to stay away from cornerback Richard Sherman on the left side. The Seahawks, by the way, allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL.
When the Patriots run the football
The Patriots have been doing it with smoke and mirrors. They lost Stevan Ridley to a season-ending injury and then featured a committee to run the football. One game Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards and was barely heard from again the rest of the season. LeGarrette Blount, who signed with Pittsburgh last offseason, was cut by the Steelers for walking off the sideline before a game ended. Four days later he re-signed with the Patriots and is the starter now. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry and had five touchdowns for New England. Blount said this week the Seattle defense “is not immortal.” And that is true. The Seattle players are unlikely to live forever. But before they go, they are likely to live up to their status as one of the best run defenses in the NFL, which is what the statistics say they were in 2014. The Seahawks were No. 3 in the NFL against the run. Their linebackers are fast. Their front is big and athletic.
When the Seahawks pass the football
Quick, name the Seattle wide receivers. … Yeah, this group is not exactly stellar, although they claim they’re every bit as good as any group in the league. Doug Baldwin is the leader of the group, but he is clearly a possession receiver who does most of his damage with underneath routes. It should be noted tight end Luke Willson is deceptively fast and averaged 16.5 yards per catch, including an 80-yard play in the regular season. Quarterback Russell Wilson is careful with the football, as his 1.5 interception percentage proves. He was, however, sacked 42 times during the season because sometimes he holds the football so that he can extend a play. The Patriots have an outstanding secondary led by Darrelle Revis. He travels to the opposing team’s best receiver and often erases that player from the game. The rest of the secondary features excellent role players. Brandon Browner is long and physical but he is also a penalty machine, having been flagged for interference or holding an average of twice per game in the playoffs.
When the Seahawks run the football
The Seahawks were the NFL’s best running team in 2014, leading the league in rushing yards per game and rushing yards per attempt. Running back Marshawn Lynch dislikes speaking to the media, but he makes plenty of bold statements with a battering-ram style that also includes speed when he gets in the open field. The Patriots were solid against the run statistically, ranking ninth in yards per game allowed and yards per attempt allowed. But the fact New England was often ahead in games and teams abandoned the run against it no doubt helped the stats. The Patriots are not a great run-stopping team.
The Seahawks won the NFC Championship Game on special teams two weeks ago. They scored a touchdown on a fake field goal. They recovered a crucial fourth-quarter onside kick that led to a go-ahead touchdown late in regulation. These guys obviously are proficient at doing the unorthodox but they were pedestrian during the regular season with their punting, coverage and return game — including 30th in the NFL in kickoff returns. The Patriots special teams, coached by former Dolphins assistant Scott O’Brien, have been mediocre much of the season. They do have a left-footed punter in Ryan Allen, who was 10th in the NFL with a 46.4-yard gross average and whose punts are difficult to field. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is the best weapon for the Patriots special teams. He is the team’s all-time leading scorer and his 86.8 field goal percentage is second-best all time in the NFL behind only Dan Bailey.
The approach is not exactly similar for Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. Carroll is more relaxed and more of a players’ coach. Belichick is more stern and likely to tell his players to perform than ask them to perform. But both encourage strong competition at every position from game to game and both demand great practice habits. Starters are never certain of keeping their jobs. Both preach preparation. Both take risks — including onside kicks, fake field goals and punts, and fourth-down conversions. Both are “recycled” coaches with experiences elsewhere. Both have won Super Bowls. Both have outstanding coaching staffs. This is a matchup of perhaps the two best coaches and staffs in the NFL. The challenges? Did Belichick spend too much time concentrating on deflated footballs when he should have been preparing his team? Did Carroll get his team sufficiently ready for New England’s ineligible/eligible receiver plays?