The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots will go head-to-head in Super Bowl XLIX Sunday. Who has the edge in this battle of evenly matched foes? Chris Burke makes a case for the Patriots below. Here's Doug Farrar's case for the Seahawks.
1. Tom Brady.
This is where we have to start. Sure, there's Gronk and Revis and Belichick, but ever since he took over as the starter some 14 years ago and led the Patriots to a surprise Super Bowl title, Brady has been the focal point.
"Personally, I feel like he’s probably going to go down as the best quarterback to ever play the game," running back LeGarrette Blount said. "When he’s on your side, you always have a chance of winning the game, no matter what the score is or who you’re playing against."
Greatest of all time? Brady certainly belongs in the conversation. Another title, which would be his fourth (and first since the 2004 season), might cement his place in history for many people.
Granted, that all means exactly nothing within the context of Super Bowl Sunday. What does matter is this: Brady has rebounded from a rocky start to the season to put together yet another Pro Bowl season. He finished the year with 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions; in the Patriots' two playoff wins, Brady has averaged 296.5 yards and three touchdowns.
His nearly unmatched ability to read defenses pre-snap and then get the ball out of his hands quickly could be just the ticket to solving an attacking Seattle defense.
"There is nothing easy about what they do," said Brady of the Seahawks' defense. "They don’t make anything easy. You’ve got to run good routes, you’ve got to make good throws, you’ve got to throw it through tight windows; they’ve got a lot of eyes on the quarterback, so you’ve got to be conscious of those things. But you still have to be able to play aggressively and play with confidence."
The last part there shouldn't be a problem for Brady. Multiple Seattle defenders this week, including cornerback Richard Sherman, noted how Brady plays with his emotions on his sleeve more often than most other quarterbacks. That's exactly the type of attitude it will take to pick apart the Seahawks' vaunted secondary.
Few quarterbacks in NFL history can even come close to matching Brady's career accomplishments. He has been waiting for this shot, his sixth Super Bowl appearance and another crack at title No. 4.
2. The New England secondary can be dominant.
While Seattle may have the market corner(back)ed on the game's best secondary, New England is not far behind. Heck, if Richard Sherman is not the league's preeminent cornerback right now, Darrelle Revis has a case. Revis actually finished with one more All-Pro vote this season (42) than Sherman.
But the Patriots are more than a one-man band. Complementing Revis' lock-down capabilities is physical 6-foot-3 former Seahawk Brandon Browner. He started the year serving a four-game suspension and did not make his Patriots debut until Week 7 ... right around the time New England shifted gears and became the AFC favorite.
"They play a lot more man-to-man than they used to, and I’m sure that has come about because of [Belichick's] confidence in the corners," Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. "So that stands out as something that they have focused, and Brandon has really added to that. Brandon Browner is a tremendous football player with great savvy and instinct. ...
"We don’t know how they’re going to play us; we have to wait and see. But we do know the range of their capabilities, I think even more so than we have in the past with their kind of tendency to play more man-to-man."
The safeties are yet another New England strength. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia trust McCourty so much that they often leave him all alone in the deep secondary, thus allowing Patrick Chung to step up against the run or in coverage. Both McCourty and Chung thrived this season, and Chung has turned in his finest campaign as an NFL player.
"I think we added two really good players," McCourty said of Revis and Browner, both offseason free-agent signings. "I think when you do that of course you get better, and I think those two guys have done a good job of being leaders and fitting into the group."
3. The Patriots' versatile run game.
Who is the Patriots' No. 1 back? It depends on the week.
Believe it or not, Jonas Gray led the Patriots in rushing this season with 412 yards, nearly half of them gained in his breakout Week 11 performance against Indianapolis. Shane Vereen gained the most total yards from scrimmage (838) and matched Gray's five touchdowns. And LeGarrette Blount was the go-to guy in the AFC title game against the Colts, churning out 148 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries.
"I think that’s a good thing about our team in terms of game-planning," said Gray. "You never know who’s going to get the opportunity to play. It’s hard for the defense."
Blount's arrival helped push Gray out of the spotlight -- the physical veteran back arrived midseason, having been cut by the Steelers after leaving the field early during a game against Tennessee. Call it a stroke of good fortune for both Blount and the Patriots, who were quick to orchestrate a reunion.
"I remember walking into the locker room early and seeing him sitting there and I was pretty excited," Vereen said of his backfield partner. "It felt like it was almost like he never left, once we got going."
Seattle allowed the third-least rushing yards in the NFL during the regular season, so it may not be fair to call its run defense a weak spot. However, it's a spot to test. In all four of the Seahawks' losses this season, their opponents topped the 100-yard mark on the ground.
4. Their front seven is extremely athletic.
If the trick to beating Seattle is containing Russell Wilson, then the Patriots have as legitimate a shot as any team that could have made the Super Bowl. New England has beef up the middle in the form of Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga and others, but the real secret to the defense's chances on Sunday lies in its versatility elsewhere.
The linchpin is linebacker Jamie Collins, an explosive player and the team's leading tackler. He may be responsible for spying Wilson, in hopes of keeping the Seahawks quarterback from creating plays with his legs. If not Collins, then the Patriots may use Dont'a Hightower in that role. Or Akeem Ayers. Or ask defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to drop and seal off the edge. Or ... well, you get the idea.
There is a ton of quickness on the Patriots' defensive depth chart, so Belichick can mix and match.
"Solid, solid defense; very, very good front seven," said Seattle center Max Unger of the challenge his offense faces Sunday. "They change up with what they do quite a bit. I guess, technically, they are a base 3-4 team, but they vary their front so much. It’s pretty tough to game plan for that and so we just have to do our best sticking with what we do."
The Patriots' goal will be to take Seattle out of that comfort zone by limiting Marshawn Lynch and frustrating Wilson. On paper, they have the athletes in the front seven to get that done.
Media members have been quizzing the Seahawks all week, trying to solve the puzzle of who will cover Rob Gronkowski this Sunday. Truth is, Seattle's coaching staff is far too smart to give one player that assignment for long, even with safety Kam Chancellor available as a primary option.
To stymie Gronkowski, a defense has to come at him in waves -- bump him with a defensive end off the line, run a linebacker in his face, box him in with multiple safeties. Guarding him one-on-one is a colossal task, no matter the defender.
"[Gronkowski is] an animal, man," Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "When you put a corner on him, he’s too small. When you put a safety on him, he’s too slow, man. You know, when Gronk is out there doing his thing, he is demanding a double team. And if he’s not being double teamed, he’s out there making plays for us. It opens up the whole offense."
Gronkowski has scored in 12 games this season, counting the playoffs, and Brady has targeted him nine times or more in 13 of the 17 games in which he's suited up.
"I will be on him, Kam (Chancellor) will be on him, Bobby (Wagner)," said linebacker K.J. Wright. "He moves all over the place on the football field. We will all be matched up on him and we know that wherever he is, most likely the ball is coming his way. So you have to have a real good eye on him and just make sure he don’t take over the game."
The 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski plays a critical role in the Patriots' run game, too. That is yet another area in which Belichick will adjust his scheme frequently, going from multiple tight ends to an extra lineman to fullback James Develin. When Gronkowski locks onto defenders, though, he can bury them. Just ask the Colts' Sergio Brown, whom Gronkowski rather famously almost blocked into the stands on one of Gray's Week 11 touchdown runs.
"[The Seahawks] definitely have an image of being physical. ... We have to go out there and be physical, too," Gronkowksi said. "You can’t just be laid back and let them push us around. We have to go out there and be ready to dominate, also."
In his one and only previous Super Bowl trip, Gronkowski barely could run due to an ankle injury that later required surgery. Now healthy, Gronkowski will be front and center for the Patriots' offensive attack.