A Game for the Ages: Super Bowl XLIX Preview

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On Sunday, the New England Patriots will look to unseat the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in Glendale, Arizona, the site of Super Bowl XLIX. The Patriots, 12-4 in the regular season and the #1 seed in the AFC, are coming off an easy win against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship while the Seahawks, also 12-4 in the regular season, are coming off an incredible comeback victory against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship.

The Seahawks are the more flashy team, with a young star quarterback who have taken the league by storm. Trying to repeat as champions, the Seahawks are also trying to become the next dynasty in the NFL. The Patriots, on the other hand, are looking to get Tom Brady and Bill Belichick their elusive 4th Super Bowl ring that will cement their legacy as the greatest quarterback-coach combination to ever exist in the NFL.

As of January 28th, the Patriots are two-point favorites against Seattle. At one point the betting line was essentially a pick ‘em, and that is evidence of how close this game is expected to be. These are the top seeds in the AFC and NFC, and are widely considered to be the top two teams in the league. This showdown should be one of the best-rated Super Bowls in the last decade.

Seattle’s Offense vs. New England’s Defense:

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The outcome of this game could very well depend on the Marshawn Lynch, arguably the best running back in the NFL. Lynch can do it all: run between the tackles, bounce the ball outside quickly, and catch the ball. He is a true three-down back. You can be sure that he is defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s number one priority to stop. The offensive line of the Seahawks is average, especially at the tackle positions, but Lynch makes up for this with his lateral agility and burst. The Patriots have to stop him from reaching the second level; if he gets a full head of steam, then Beast Mode is engaged.

New England defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will be two key players in this matchup. They will need to maintain the edge against the read option of the Seahawks. New England will most likely go with a “mush rush”, which emphasizes the defensive line staying in their lanes and not overpursuing the quarterback at the cost of leaving holes for a mobile quarterback to run through. The benefit to a mush rush is effectively containing a mobile quarterback such as Wilson in the pocket, but at the expense of a more effective pass rush. Wilson is one of the few quarterbacks in the league who is just as good throwing on the run as he is staying in the pocket and throwing.

The Seattle offensive line will need to step up on Sunday. Its misgivings are sheltered by the escapability of Wilson and the powerful running of Lynch. The return of rookie right tackle Justin Britt from injury is important because his replacement, Alvin Bailey, was consistently poor in pass protection. Look for New England to heavily lean on defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Vince Wilfork to clog the running lanes, with Wilfork almost certain to be double-teamed on most snaps.

The reason Lynch must be dominant on Sunday is because the Patriots have a decided advantage in the secondary against the Seahawks’ receiving corps. The Seahawks’ wide receivers struggle to gain separation against man coverage, which the Patriots excel at. I would expect Darrelle Revis to cover Doug Baldwin, Brandon Browner to cover tight end Luke Willson, with Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette being covered by a mix of Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler. The Seahawks would be wise to employ the trips formation liberally in this game against a Pats’ secondary that has struggled to defend receivers out of that formation. Wilson helps out his receivers immensely by extending plays and allowing them extra time to gain separation. When Wilson is in the pocket against man coverage, he shows indecision in picking which receiver to throw to. In the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers, Wilson had four interceptions and made multiple bad decisions, both forcing it to covered receivers and missing open targets. These struggles could very well continue against an even better New England secondary. Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins will be most likely to be used as a “spy” on Wilson. The athletic linebacker has the speed and alertness to be able to keep Wilson from gashing the Pats in the run game.

New England’s Offense vs. Seattle’s Defense:

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Two key matchups that must be highlighted are Tom Brady vs. the Legion of Boom and Michael Bennett vs. the New England offensive line. In the 2012 season, Richard Sherman had his coming-out party against Brady, catching one of Brady’s two interceptions that day and tearing into Brady after the game, with the famous “YOU MAD BRO?” quote resulting from his tirade against Brady. The Seahawks came from behind on a game-winning touchdown throw from Russell Wilson. Now, things have come full circle, with the Seahawks on their way to becoming the next NFL dynasty, and Brady looking to avenge the loss from two seasons ago and capture that elusive fourth ring.

Seattle has the most talented defense in the league and will pose the ultimate test for the Pats’ offense. The Seahawks don’t run very intricate defensive schemes: what you see is what you get. They will either run a Cover 1 press man defense, or go into a Cover 3 defense with the outside cornerbacks dropping back deep and All-Pro safety Earl Thomas manning the middle of the field.

However, New England has the perfect set of wide receivers to test this Seahawks secondary. The Seattle corners are large compared to most cornerbacks, and they are built to deal with the large, athletic wide receivers that dominate the league. Aside from Brandon Lafell, who is 6’2”, the Pats have a smaller receiving corps that is very quick. During film study of Seahawks games, it was obvious that the Seattle corners like Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell struggled against smaller, quicker wideouts. Julian Edelman should be able to go to work against this secondary.

Another advantage that the Patriots have is that they will be able to dictate the matchups they want. The Seahawks line up in their positions and will defend whoever is across from them. This means that Josh McDaniels can line up Edelman away from Richard Sherman, who takes the left side of the field. NE will most likely line up Edelman against slot corner Jeremy Lane, Lafell on Maxwell, and Amendola on Sherman. Seattle is so confident in their defense that they won’t go out of their way to focus on one player. It’s all about execution for them.

Tom Brady usually excels against defenses in which he can easily identify what they are trying to do. The defenses that cause him fits, like Rex Ryan’s New York Jets defense, confuse him by giving him various looks in the secondary and sending pressure from unexpected areas. Against a Seattle team that is relatively bland in terms of defensive schemes, Brady should not have trouble identifying favorable matchups for his team.

One of the most exciting individual matchups in this game will be All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski versus second team All-Pro safety Kam Chancellor. The winner of this matchup will likely have a sizable impact on the game. Seattle linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are solid three-down linebackers, but they got burned by Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz and Green Bay’s Richard Rodgers when they were tasked with covering them. Against Gronk, Seattle will have to rely on Chancellor’s physicality to try and disrupt the tight end and hope that they can contain Brady’s favorite target, because if they can’t, New England will likely win this game. Against San Diego’s Antonio Gates earlier in the season, Seattle allowed him to catch all 7 passes thrown his way for 96 total yards, 3 TDs, and 13.7 YPA. Seattle must do better against an even better tight end on Sunday.

New England’s oft-criticized offensive line, which has only let up 21 sacks this season—it’s lowest total since the 2009 season—will need to be stout against this powerful Seattle defensive line that features Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. These two pose problems similar to what New York’s Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan did to New England in the 2008 Super Bowl. Avril is the speedy, long rusher who could pose problems for left tackle Nate Solder, who has struggled against speed rushers. Bennett will move around on the defensive line and is a powerful rusher who can be a nightmare for offensive lines if not accounted for properly. Look for Seattle to move him inside against the interior of New England’s OL to get favorable matchups against guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. If Brady is under duress throughout the game, it will be tough for him to have success against the Legion of Boom.

PREDICTION: Patriots 31-21.

The Seahawks get off to a fast start behind the running of Marshawn Lynch, but the New England defense makes adjustments in the second half and shuts down Lynch behind the play of linebacker Dont’a Hightower. LeGarrette Blount leads the way for New England on offense with 80+ yards rushing and 2 TDs and Tom Brady throws for 2 TDs in the second half, earning his third Super Bowl MVP trophy and solidifying his legacy as the greatest quarterback to play the game.

Images courtesy of fanspeak.com, fansided.com, and USA Today

Aidan Curran
Georgetown Class of 2018

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