Matchups for the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium:
When the Seahawks (14-4) have the ball:
If the Patriots can tame the Beast, they will have a big head start toward a fourth NFL championship since 2001. RB Marshawn Lynch (24) will try to impose his will on a solid but not overwhelming defense led by DT Vince Wilfork (75), DE Rob Ninkovich (50), LBs Jamie Collins (91) and Dont'a Hightower (54). If Lynch is slowed, that leaves the onus for running on QB Russell Wilson (3). While highly capable - he rushed for 849 yards and six TDs in 2014 - Wilson would prefer balance on offense.
When he throws, he must avoid the interceptions that plagued him vs. Green Bay for the NFC title. Not that Wilson was always off-target, with two of his picks being off tips by WR Jermaine Kearse (15). But he was not nearly as precise as usual.
Kearse, who caught the winning TD pass in the past two NFC title matches, was targeted on all four interceptions against the Packers. He'll see plenty of CBs Darrelle Revis (24) and Brandon Browner (39), a Seahawk last season, and could struggle getting open deep. S Devin McCourty (32) also will help in coverage on WR Doug Baldwin (89) and TE Luke Willson (82).
One thing Seattle won't do is lose faith even when things aren't working on offense. And behind an unsung offensive line led by LT Russell Okung (76) and C Max Unger (60), they won't back off, either.
When the Patriots (14-4) have the ball:
Unquestionably the key matchup, as it often is these days when the Patriots are on the field, will be All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski (87) against the legions trying to cover him. However, for Seattle's Legion of Boom, much of the assignment will fall to S Kam Chancellor (31). Chancellor has the size (6-3, 232), speed and tackling skills to somewhat neutralize Gronkowski.
If he can do that, it frees All-Pro S Earl Thomas (29) to help with versatile WR Julian Edelman (11), who mostly will draw All-Pro CB Richard Sherman (25) in coverage. QB Tom Brady (12) is particularly comfortable throwing to Gronk and Edelman, and the Seahawks want to force him to look at others instead.
But even if the coverage is strong, Seattle must get pressure from pass rushers DEs Michael Bennett (72) and Cliff Avril (56) and LBs Bobby Wagner (54), an All-Pro, and Bruce Irvin (51). Brady is most vulnerable - which isn't very vulnerable - when he has to throw before he wants to and can't set his feet.
That means an unheralded offensive line featuring tackles Sebastian Vollmer (76) and Nate Solder (77) needs to be steady.
Green Bay showed the Seahawks can be run on, so RB LeGarrette Blount (29) could wind up being a featured player.
Although the Seahawks were not great on special teams this season, they were spectacular in beating Green Bay. A fake field goal pass for a TD by holder Jon Ryan (9) - one of the NFL's most accurate punters - and an onside kick that kept them alive for the NFC title won't be forgotten in the Pacific Northwest.
Generally, though, New England has the edge here. Coverage is very good on punt and kickoff returns, led by Pro Bowler Matthew Slater (18). Edelman (11) was second in the NFL with 12 yards per punt return and had one for an 84-yard TD. Stephen Gostkowski (3) missed only two field goals and led the NFL with 156 points.
Pete Carroll's revenge? It's not a major story line, but it should be recognized that Carroll preceded Bill Belichick in New England. He wasn't a bad coach there, either, going 28-23, but that pales compared to Belichick's numbers.
No team brings more energy to the field than the Seahawks, and it stems from Carroll. He always has the pulse of his team: Carroll saw how Seattle was suffering from a Super Bowl hangover early in the schedule. He not only got the Seahawks to snap out of it, but reach peak form down the stretch - at least until last week, when they got lucky, too.
Belichick just surpassed Tom Landry's mark for postseason victories (21). Regardless of the findings of the NFL's probe into under-inflated footballs in the AFC championship contest, he is known as an innovator - just as much as he is known for stretching the parameters of the rulebook. Belichick keeps things fresh by finding new ways to exploit the opposition.
He will have something unusual lined up for Carroll and the Seahawks.
Seattle seeks to become the first repeat winner since the Patriots managed it a decade ago. A victory would stamp these Seahawks as an all-time great team, particularly having beaten Peyton Manning and Brady in successive Super Bowls. The Seahawks also come off a mediocre performance in the NFC title game, which should spur them on.
New England, of course, doesn't want to add a stigma of Super Bowl loser by dropping three in a row after winning in its first three trips with Brady and Belichick. Brady can equal Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with four Super Bowl rings, while Belichick can tie Chuck Noll with four.
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