Even before Super Bowl XLII, with their team favored by more than two touchdowns, most Patriots fans could still see that the game could go either way. Sure, the Pats had won 18 games in a row, but the win over the Giants to end the regular season was closer than most games (38-35). And starting with Roosevelt Colvin’s season-ending injury against Philadelphia in Week 11, the 2007 Patriots defense turned from among the NFL’s best to average. There is always a road to victory and a road to defeat. Here are five observations that could lead to a Patriots victory, and five observations that could turn the game in Seattle’s favor.
Five Thoughts That Favor the Patriots
Rob Gronkowski is Healthy: This is perhaps the most obvious advantage that the Patriots have that everyone is overlooking. He’s never been healthy for an entire postseason since his rookie season. He was hurt during Super Bowl XLVI. He’s healthy now, and while he might not post a 100-yard game, he’s still going to require double coverage from the Seahawks. That means someone else will be open. He’s the queen of the chessboard and the best player who will take the field on Sunday. (Rob Gronkowski photo, courtesy of New England Patriots)
Patriots Offensive Adaptability: No running back carries in the second half vs. Baltimore. A 148-yard game from LeGarrette Blount vs. Indianapolis. Yup, those were two very different game plans. But it goes deeper than that, especially if Bryan Stork returns to the Pats on Sunday. With him, they can run or pass out of their normal alignment. Without him, the only way they’re running is if Cameron Fleming comes on the field as an extra blocker. But Stork provides the versatility that the Pats will need. Gronkowski can catch or block. Same with Brandon LaFell. And running back Shane Vereen can catch (52 catches), run (4.1 yards per carry) and block. It’s conceivable the Patriots could play with most of the same personnel all game: Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Vereen, Gronk, LaFell and the five offensive linemen could fill 10 of the 11 spots for the majority of plays. If you see those guys on the field, are you selling out to stop the run or the pass? You just don’t know. That’s what makes the Patriots truly unpredictable.
Are We Sure the Seahawks are Great? This is a toss up. Yes, they’ve won 11 of their past 12 games. But the only teams with a winning record that they beat during that run were the Cardinals with their backup and third-string quarterbacks, and the Eagles with their backup quarterback. Oh, and the Packers. In Seattle. After only scoring on a fake field goal in the first 55 minutes of the game. But they beat the teams that they had to in order to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC. And they got healthier along the way, getting guys like Kam Chancellor back up to speed.
On to Seattle: Fans saw a glimpse of the Patriots’ strategy to move past Deflategate last Saturday when coach Bill Belichick praised his team as the best in the league. It was reminiscent of his “On to Cincinnati” rallying cry, which came with a strong defense of his team during that week. It also brought to mind his reportedly stirring pregame speech against the Carolina Panthers in 2004, when he said: “Everybody’s talking about the how Panthers are similar to us. They’re not us. They’ll never be [expletive] us. They’ll never be champions. We’re the [expletive] champions, and the trophy is coming back where it belongs.” If there’s ever a time to bring out a similar emotional pregame speech, Sunday is that time. Players don’t need any extra motivation before a game as big as the Super Bowl, but it can’t hurt, right? And a little extra motivation during practice always helps too.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick: This needs no explanation. They’ve been in five of these things together and they’ve won three.
Five Thoughts That Favor the Seahawks
The Seahawks Defense: Sure, they lost a few players from last year, but the sheer volume of playmakers that this team employs on defense is staggering. The Patriots really shouldn’t make a habit of throwing the ball toward Richard Sherman or Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor. And Seattle’s front seven is just as good, with a run defense that was phenomenal this season. For all of the adaptability that the Patriots offense has, the Seahawks can match it on defense.
The Patriots’ Run Defense: Marshawn Lynch is good. But if the Patriots had a stout run defense, they could likely stop him. The problem is the Patriots’ defense has been below average, especially of late. Even during a dominant performance against the Colts, Indy still used its mediocre running backs to average 4.4 yards per carry. And Baltimore went for nearly 5 yards a run during the divisional playoff game. The Patriots could load up against the run, and I expect to see run-stuffing safety Patrick Chung provide a lot of help. But they could have done that against Baltimore as well, and they didn’t during the first quarter.
Russell Wilson: The Seattle quarterback really might have the “it” factor. He’s got a leadership quality and fearlessness that allowed him to rally from a two-score deficit with 5 minutes to go. Plus he has the ability to beat teams with his arm and his legs. Those types of players have often hurt the Patriots, and they were defenseless against Wilson running the read-option when they faced him in 2012.
The Crowd: Seahawks fans are reportedly coming to Arizona in droves to watch the game. Sure, most of the Super Bowl tickets go to nonfans, but Seattle is far closer to Arizona than New England is, so it’s easy to see that 12th Man making an impact on the atmosphere. If that’s the case, it could disrupt the Patriots with any pre-snap movement or audibles.
The Improbability Factor: How did Seattle beat Green Bay? They were outplayed on both sides of the ball for more than three quarters. They were down two scores with less than 5 minutes to go. It was a complete ass kicking. And yet they still won. If they can win despite getting so outplayed, then imagine if they actually play well? All bets are off, and the Seahawks won’t simply have won back-to-back Super Bowls. They might have won back-to-back Super Bowl blowouts.
After sorting through the good and the bad, it’s hard to predict how the game will go. It’s difficult to envision Seattle putting up a big point total, so if they don’t score more than 21 points, will the offensive-minded Patriots have a chance? Sure. But the recipe for all postseason Patriots losses since 2007 has been that the offense never gets going. They haven’t scored more than 21 points in a postseason loss since the AFC Championship defeat in Indianapolis. If they bank 21 or more on Sunday, they’ll win. More likely, however, they’ll need to find a way to win a 16-13 or 12-10 Super Bowl. In cases like those, it’s nice to know the Patriots have a special teams edge (5th in DVOA to 19th for Seattle) since field position could mean a valuable field goal here or there. The defense can likely hold up against the one-dimensional Seahawks. But the question remains whether the Patriots can score on Seattle. A simple look at the Packers game shows they likely can score a little bit (and Green Bay left a lot of points on the board settling for field goals). So the guess here is the Patriots pull out a squeaker: 20-16.