After five months of incredible football, another NFL season draws to a conclusion on Sunday evening in Glendale, AZ. Super Bowl XLIX promises to be an outstanding showdown between a three-time champ looking to achieve glory once again for the first time in a decade and the defending champion of the league.
As they say, styles make fights and each of the teams playing on Sunday has a unique one. The way they match up, and how the battles within the game play out, will go a long way toward deciding who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the day in the desert.
Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll
One of Super Bowl XLIX’s most intriguing matchups will be contested on the sidelines, as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll go head-to-head in the mind game to end all mind games.
The two coaches have a lot in common, including being two of the three oldest coaches in the league. Both re-invented themselves after rocky starts to their respective careers as head coaches and, perhaps due to that, they also have a mutual admiration for one another.
“I have a ton of respect for what Pete does as a coach, how good of a fundamental teacher he is, the way his teams play,” Belichick said this week. “[I’ve] studied Pete from afar over a long period of time. I’ve learned a lot from what he does, and indirectly, I think he’s made me a better coach. I have all the respect in the world for Pete and his staff.”
But their contrasting personalities set them apart. Belichick is the owner of the league’s best poker face and Carroll wears his emotions on his sleeve.
They’re also two of the game’s most respected leaders and innovators, and each has a deep playbook of tricks and schemes that they’ve already proven ready and willing to use in this year’s playoffs. With everything on the line on Super Bowl Sunday, expect each coach to pull out his very best, which could make for a game full of surprises. Whoever gets the last maneuver in will have a chance to cement his legacy as one of the game’s all-time great coaches.
Tom Brady vs. The Legion of Boom
Another participant in Sunday’s game with a chance to cement his place among the league’s all-time greats is Tom Brady. Brady is already considered one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, but adding a fourth ring to his hand to match Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most Super Bowl titles among quarterbacks would be a crowning achievement for Brady.
To do so, Brady will have to figure out a way to crack one of the league’s most complete defensive backfields, Seattle’s vaunted and battle-tested Legion of Boom, led by all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman and all-pro safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
In Sherman, the Seahawks have perhaps the league’s best cover corner, a one-on-one matchup nightmare for any receiver in the game. Sherman’s skillset is aided by having Thomas and Chancellor behind him. Thomas covers ground like no other defensive back in the league, giving his teammates some leeway to sell-out to their matchup and play tighter in coverage. Chancellor is known as the LOB’s enforcer, packing a wallop that few in the league can match. But he’s also proven to be dangerous and opportunistic in coverage, as evidenced by his 90-yard touchdown against Carolina in the divisional round. Even Seattle’s other starting corner, the unheralded Byron Maxwell, presents a challenge for New England as he graded out as a top cover corner in his own right this season.
Everywhere Brady turns as he surveys the field on Sunday, he will see an unfavorable matchup. It’s a challenge that Peyton Manning proved no match for in Super Bowl XLVIII and Brady knows he’ll have to be at the top of his game to break through. But he’s confident and has an ace up his sleeve in Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner, who played for the Seahawks for three seasons before signing with New England this past offseason.
“There’s a lot of challenges,” Brady said this week. “They don’t give up anything easy, I’ll tell you that. I think that’s a challenge and everything has to be coordinated so well. You need great distributions in your patterns, you’ve got to make great decisions…and it’s really a battle of that. It’s whether you can sustain that for 60 minutes and if you can’t, then you know they will.”
In watching film of the Seahawks, Brady and the Patriots will likely learn a few lessons from Seattle’s NFC Championship matchup with Green Bay that will help. For the first three quarters of that game, before the Packers went ultra-conservative to protect their lead, Green Bay had Seattle on their heels.
As Thomas blogged this week, it was Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that kept the Seahawks defense off balance, which allowed Green Bay to build a 16-0 lead:
“He used a lot of quick-strike plays against us, and he attacked certain spots on the football field. It played to his advantage that they were playing an aggressive team like us. We were flying all around, but he was moving so slow and smooth. His focus was on point. I think that gave him an edge in the game. He also used his cadence to disrupt our rhythm. He was double counting, triple counting and the ball wasn’t getting snapped until two seconds were left on the play clock. They did a great job of controlling the game in that aspect.”
But where Green Bay faltered was an inability to finish drives with touchdowns. They settled for field goals from the goal line on back-to-back drives early in the game, leaving room for Seattle’s incredible comeback. Brady and the Patriots suffered a similar fate the last time New England and Seattle met in Week 6 of the 2012 season.
After scoring two touchdowns early, the Patriots settled for three consecutive field goals — one each in the second, third and fourth quarters — leaving the Seahawks down by just 13 early in the fourth. Seattle went on to score two touchdowns in the final seven-and-a-half minutes and won the game 24-23. Brady will need to have learned his lesson from that game for the Patriots to come out on top Sunday.
“We played against them a couple years ago and we did a good job moving the ball,” Brady said. “We just didn’t score enough points so hopefully we can move the ball well on Sunday and we’ve got to get the ball in the end zone – but these guys make it pretty tough.”
Marshawn Lynch vs. New England’s front-seven
The chatter around Marshawn Lynch this week has been centered around his lack of desire to talk to the media and his subsequent antics when forced to. But Lynch plays a far more important role in Sunday’s game than he does in the media center.
As clutch as Russell Wilson has been in big moments early in his career, including the improbable NFC title game comeback two weeks ago, it’s unlikely Wilson would have succeeded in those moments without the help of Lynch.
In that NFC Championship game, it was Lynch who caught Wilson’s second down lob with just over three minutes to go and the Seahawks down 12 points. He nearly took that short pass to the house before stepping out of bounds at the nine-yard-line, which set up Wilson’s touchdown run. Later, after Seattle recovered the onside kick, it was Lynch who took the fourth play of the ensuing drive 24 yards to the end zone to give Seattle the lead.
That performance proved once again that, despite all that Wilson does, Lynch is Seattle’s offensive calling card.
“He’s a huge part of us. He’s our identity,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this week. “To be able to be a run-first team, the physical nature he brings, the extra effort, the clawing and scratching, running people over and coming out of the back side of it, that gets you going as an offense and gives you more confidence.”
With that in mind, slowing Lynch will be a crucial factor, perhaps the most crucial factor, in winning the Super Bowl for New England.
It starts up front with Vince Wilfork and New England’s run-stopping front line. The Patriots finished middle of the pack in total defense this season, but were ranked No. 9 against the run. That rank would’ve been even higher if not for a poor start to the season that saw New England give up over 190 yards rushing in three of their first nine games. After a Week 10 bye, the Patriots run defense was much stronger, allowing an average of less than 90 yards per game (89.7) on the ground. Wilfork knows they will have to step up one more time to stop Lynch.
“If we can’t do that, we’ll have a long night and I’m not looking for a long night,” Wilfork said. “You have to take it personal. It starts up front with the offensive line and defensive line when you have a back like this…they’ve been so special over their years running the football, so I think our number one objective is Marshawn Lynch.”
But there will be times, given the nature of the game, that Lynch makes it past Wilfork and that first level of the New England defense, leaving the responsibility of stopping him on linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Akeem Ayers and Jamie Collins. Whether they can bring him down will be the true test.
“Every time he runs, he runs like he doesn’t have a ball in hands. He’s running, shrugging people off. He never runs out of bounds…he’s going to get you those tough yards and he’s shown it,” Wilfork said. “They don’t mind handing him the ball on 3rd-and-3 or 3rd-and-4. They don’t mind doing that because it’s what he brings to the game. We’re going to need about three or four guys getting to him to be successful.”
Rob Gronkowski vs. Whoever is tasked with stopping him
There is perhaps no bigger matchup nightmare in the National Football League than Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He is a tight end in a lineman’s body with the athleticism of a wide receiver and the will of a running back. He is the full arsenal of an NFL offense unto himself. And if Tom Brady is to do the aforementioned and get New England into the end zone repeatedly, as the Green Bay Packers were unable to do against Seattle, he’s going to do it with Gronkowski.
Gronkowski has played in 17 of New England’s 18 games so far this season and scored at least one touchdown in 12 of them, including the last five. He’s done it against cornerbacks, linebackers, safeties and the occasional unlucky lineman, and Brady is unafraid to throw to him in any place at any time.
“Gronk is a phenomenal athlete. He’s got great presence, a great understanding of the game and how to get open on different types of cover guys whether they’re big or small,” Brady said. “In a lot of ways he’s taken his game to the next level with different techniques. I think Gronk’s done such a great job of kind of refining his own techniques and really going from just a great athlete who catches footballs to really a great tight end that knows how to run routes, knows how to block, takes a lot of pride in those things, understands coverages and understands how to gain leverages. He’s been a phenomenal player for our team.”
The Seahawks will likely use several players to cover Gronkowski, led by the strong safety Kam Chancellor. But they rely so heavily on Chancellor to do several different things for their defense depending on the situation, it’s likely that linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, as well as Sherman, Maxwell and slot corner Jeremy Lane, will all see time shadowing Gronkowski.
“We have an excellent opportunity to match up as good as anybody,” Coach Carroll said. “Kam Chancellor’s about as big a strong safety as you can find. It’s just about bodies on bodies. We’ll have to play him a number of different ways to have a chance to slow him down. He really has all of the elements that you’re looking for from a big-time tight end. I was looking real close again just to see if there’s a way to find some approach that we could slow him down. It’s something that’s very important to us because he’s such a key factor on their team.”
Lane made waves this week when he was asked about Gronkowski and said the tight end is “not that good” and Wagner added that he wouldn’t call Gronkowski “a problem” for the Seattle defense. But Richard Sherman told reporters that he believes Gronkowski is “pretty great” and Wright compared him to a future Hall of Famer.
“He reminds me of Tony Gonzalez when he was in his prime with just his finesse and just always finding a way to get yards after the catch,” Wright said. “We know he’s a good player and you’ve got to make sure [you know] wherever he’s at on the football field. Because more likely the ball is coming his way. When he does catch them, we’ve got to hit him, tackle him to get him down and make sure he doesn’t get those yards after the catch.”
Whether it’s in coverage or after the catch, Chancellor is likely the Seahawks’ best hope at slowing Gronkowski down, particularly in the red zone. The Seattle safety also has a healthy respect for Gronkowski, and he noted this week that he’ll be ready for the big challenge.
“He’s a big physical guy,” Chancellor said. “It’s going to be big on big. That’s the go-to guy for them. They definitely want to target him a lot, try to get him the ball….We have to play our defense that is called, be fundamentally sound and play our ball.”
Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse vs. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner
When last we saw the Seattle Seahawks on the football field, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse was hauling in a beautifully thrown ball from Russell Wilson in stride for a game-winning touchdown. Taking plays like that away from the Seattle offense will be the goal for New England’s rebuilt secondary, led by one of the best corners in the league, Darrelle Revis.
According to Revis, Seattle’s receivers do their best work when Wilson starts to scramble and they begin to improvise their routes. That also happens to be the toughest test for a cornerback, because it becomes more difficult to anticipate what the receiver will do next. But Revis says that he, Browner and the rest of the New England defensive backfield must trust themselves to stick with their man and limit those improvisational opportunities.
“By watching film, you see it’s very tough to cover those guys down the field,” Revis said. “Russell does a great job at breaking the defense down with his legs. Scrambling and extending plays. In the secondary we just have to plaster when he does scramble and keep our eyes on our man.”
The Seattle offense doesn’t feature the all-pro wide receiver types that Revis is usually matched up on, but the receiving duo of Doug Baldwin and Kearse has performed well when Wilson has called their numbers, particularly in crunch time.
“They’ve been doing a phenomenal job. Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin, they’ve been lights out for us all year. They’ve made a lot of big-time catches; Jermaine’s catch last week, Doug’s catch last week,” Wilson said. “I love the guys that are around me. I trust that they’re going to make the play when they need to make the play, and I trust that they’re going to make the consistent play.”
Baldwin is known for his quickness and is one of Wilson’s go-to targets on short and intermediate routes, which he can turn into big gains with his speed. Kearse is a threat to take the top off the defense on any play, as he’s proven with touchdown catches of over 20 yards in each of Seattle’s last four playoff games. Browner remembers practice battles with both players from his time with the Seahawks, and plans to draw on that, as well as his film work, when he faces each player on Sunday.
“It will be big because I have familiarity with what they like to do,” he said. “Doug [is] probably one of the quickest guys I ever had to face and he poses some challenges for someone like myself…It got heated (in practice) a couple of times, I won’t say what happened, but it got it heated…Kearse has gotten a lot better too. I think I have a better beat on those guys with this week of preparation and film work. It doesn’t stop until all the way up until game time.”
Revis’ reputation as one of the game’s best corners is built as much on that crucial preparation for each of his matchups as it is on his performance on the field once the game begins. Through film study, he believes he’s capable of finding ways to slow down any offense by limiting their options down the field.
“I study a lot of film, so I do my own assessment of just studying receivers and offenses and quarterbacks. They do the same thing, you have to give them the same respect. They game plan, they might have double moves or triple moves or certain plays where they really want to attack you, so you have to give them that respect,” Revis said. “I appreciate the competition. At the same time, the only thing I can do is focus on that play at that time and really just zone in on what I’m trying to do and complete my job.”
The Seahawks’ receiver duo prides themselves on their underdog mentality. Both players were signed as undrafted free agents and, as a result, they play with an everlasting chip on their shoulders. Each has been able to find ways to succeed against some of the best secondaries in the league, and they expect Super Bowl Sunday to be no different.
“Anytime you get to go up against guys that have done well in this league, who have dominated in this league, you have got to rise to the challenge,” Baldwin said. “Browner being one of the most physical cornerbacks, Revis being one of the most cerebral cornerbacks, I’m excited about the opportunity we have presented to us.”
LeGarrette Blount vs. Seattle’s tacklers
Lost in the aftermath of the AFC Championship Game and the deflate-gate controversy that surrounded its result was the true downfall of the Indianapolis Colts, the fact that they couldn’t tackle LeGarrette Blount all day.
It was Blount and the running game, not Brady and the passing attack, that carried the day in New England’s 45-7 blowout win. Blount rushed 30 times and tallied 148 yards and three touchdowns, a game-changing afternoon from a player who didn’t even join the Patriots until midseason after being granted his release from the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 18. Two days later, he signed to return to New England, where he’d spent the entire 2013 season.
“They knew that I could run the football,” Blount said. “They know that I can be effective with it. They know that I have big-play potential. They like my style of running and I fit in perfectly with this offense. It was a perfect matchup.”
Since returning to New England, Blount has played in all but one game for the Patriots with fluctuating results. He averaged 12 carries and 56.2 yards per game and scored three touchdowns over five regular season games for New England. But in the divisional round win over Baltimore, Blount got just three carries and managed only a single yard rushing. His varying usage is sure to keep the Seahawks guessing going into Sunday’s game but, regardless of how he’s deployed, the running back has added a different dimension to the Patriots attack, one Seattle knows they have to be prepared for.
“We’re not neglecting, at all, their commitment to the running game,” Carroll said. “Just a couple games ago they ran the ball 40 times in a game, which is a tremendous commitment. In the next game, they ran it 14 times. We have to find out how they want to play it as we go through the game. But we’re going to do the things we do well, and hopefully that will be enough for us.”
Among those things that Seattle does well is their ability to swarm to the football and then wrap up the ball carrier when they get there. Chancellor, Thomas, Wright and Wagner are all among the best tacklers in the league due not only to their tenacity, but the pure technique with which they tackle.
“When we play this game, and you touch this ball, it is all about getting you down,” Chancellor said. “It’s about running and hitting. It’s about being fundamentally sound. If you prepare for it, it will get done in the game. So you prepare and once that man [gets the ball], the rest is want to. The coaches can get you to the position to get you where you need to get, get your feet under you and line you up, but the rest of it is the want to. You’ve got to want to get that guy down and you’ve got to want to do it with aggression and that’s my team.”
Stopping the run and forcing Brady to throw into the teeth of the Legion of Boom will be just as important as anything the Seahawks try to accomplish in Super Bowl XLIX. Seattle boasted the No. 3 defense against the run and the No. 1 overall defense in the regular season, and Wagner says they won’t be changing a thing about their approach to accommodate New England or Blount. They enter Sunday’s game as confident as ever in their preparation and execution.
“We approach the game the same as we approach every game. We don’t personally care what you’re going to try to do. Once we figure out what you’re trying to do – we’re going to adjust to it. If they want to run the ball out – we will be ready,” Wagner said. “Blount ran the hell out of the ball [against Indianapolis]. That’s definitely going to be a challenge – with him back there it balances out their passing game. I think if we stop the run and make them one-dimensional, we will be fine.”
Blount wishes them good luck trying to stop him.
“I don’t care about them being a top defense, they don’t bother me,” Blount said. “They were good enough to get here, just like we were good enough to get here. They’re not immortal. They can be beat.”
Though these six factors will be vitally important, the game is likely to be so closely contested that it could even come down to special teams and the kicking game. It all adds up to what should be a thrilling Super Bowl XLIX, a fitting capper for a great season of football.
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