PHOENIX – Since the league championship games were determined, I have been obsessing about this Super Bowl matchup between the Seahawks and Patriots. It’s the one I dreamed of with my prediction before the season, and it has become a reality. This matchup is good for the game because it truly does feature the two best teams in the NFL.
This is as difficult a prediction that I’ve had to make in a Super Bowl. Last year I thought the Seahawks would beat the Broncos fairly easily (though not 43-8). Super Bowl XLIX, conversely, is a coin flip. The bounce of the ball and one or two fluke plays likely will determine the winner.
That’s how close these two teams are. In fact, they are nearly mirror images. Both hybrid 4-3/3-4 defenses have some softness against the run, but good luck trying to throw the football as the main means of moving the ball. Offensively, both teams have been covering for average lines all season. Both teams feature power running backs but have speed in reserve at the position as well. Their weapons are mostly anonymous gamers, save for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Russell Wilson is, basically, an athletic Tom Brady from the Patriots’ first three title runs: His team is powered by defense and running the ball, and the quarterback has to be special when needed.
One thing I feel fairly confident in saying: This should be a low-scoring Super Bowl. Unless there are special team scores or the game goes to overtime, this game should be played largely in the teens, like the Patriots’ two Super Bowl losses to the Giants (17-14 and 21-17, respectively). The matchup between the Patriots and Seahawks could be the lowest-scoring Super Bowl since 1973, when the undefeated Dolphins beat Washington 14-7 in Super Bowl VII.
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Before the season, I predicted a Super Bowl score of Seattle 13, New England 10. I still believe we’ll see a score somewhere in that area. But I’m going to go against the grain and switch my pick to the Patriots.
For starters, when I picked the Seahawks before the season started, they had Percy Harvin. The added dynamic he brought to the offense was on full display in the opener against the Packers. The Seahawks now are a bit limited on offense. Harvin widened the field for the entire offense and allowed them to “steal” about six marginally big plays a game. When he was traded to the Jets on Oct. 17 to save team chemistry, it was an apparently necessary move, but there’s little doubt it took away a weapon offensively. So did the injury to talented young receiver Paul Richardson.
The Seahawks also had nosetackle Brandon Mebane and three-technique Jordan Hill. Certainly, Kevin Williams has done a good job replacing the underrated Mebane, and Tony McDaniel is a solid player, but the Seahawks are razor thin at defensive tackle. Former 49ers castoff DeMarcus Dobbs and former Patriots part-timer Landon Cohen are getting meaningful snaps. As opposed to last year’s Super Bowl winner, which had Mebane, McDaniel, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald (Bryant and McDonald left via free agency), this group can be taken advantage of by an opponent who is disciplined enough to continually run the ball.
And I think the Patriots, who have only lost linebacker Jerod Mayo (ably replaced by Dont'a Hightower) and running back Stevan Ridley (LeGarrette Blount), will do that. They also will be smart enough to take advantage of whomever Seahawks nickelback Jeremy Lane is lined up on, whether that be Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola. Look for the Patriots to also spread Gronkowski out wide not only to try to win against top Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, but also to work advantageous matchups against Lane.
But the key will be the interior running of LeGarrette Blount, who in the AFC Championship Game had one of his finest games as a Patriot because he showed more vision and agility. His power can match or win against Seattle’s excellent defensive speed. Chip Kelly once said, “We want taller, longer people because bigger people beat up little people.” I expect the Patriots to endorse that philosophy with many extra tight end sets, including tackle eligible Cameron Fleming.
This is all well and good, but the Patriots still have to execute against the most dangerous player in this game: Seahawks end/tackle Michael Bennett. If there’s anyone on the Seahawks who can ruin another Patriots’ Super Bowl like Justin Tuck did twice for the Giants, it’s Bennett. He will find advantageous matchups against both Patriots guards (Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell). If the Patriots don’t account for Bennett on every play, they will be in trouble offensively.
And I don’t expect the Patriots to be very effective offensively unless they can get some short fields with turnovers. If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels thinks he can spread the Seahawks out and throw against them, good luck. The Patriots, with both their running and their passing game, are a scheme offense. They don’t have anyone outside of Gronkowski who can break the game open, so they use motion, personnel, formations and Tom Brady’s pre-snap adjustments to get guys open. That’s fine against most of the other 30 teams, but it won't work against the Seahawks. They are the anti-Patriots. There’s nothing fancy about their defensive scheme. They’ll line up in either Cover 3 (deep safety and two deep cornerbacks) or Cover 1 (one deep safety on top of press man coverage) and basically say, “You go ahead and do all those motions and substitutions, we’ll be here waiting for you every snap.” Seattle’s defense is the only unit in the NFL that can do that against a quarterback as good as Brady, because the Seahawks are that talented on defense. They are better than the opponent at almost every spot.
The Super Bowl matchup will hinge on the Seattle offense against the New England defense, and this is why I’m giving the Patriots the edge. They are probably the most disciplined unit in the NFL, maybe more so than Seattle. They will limit Marshawn Lynch’s effectiveness, even if Seattle uses more read-option (as I expect them to), and they will stay in their rush lanes to keep Russell Wilson in the pocket. Patriots ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich occasionally will give up the end to mobile quarterbacks. But that’s during the regular season. With two weeks to prepare for this game, I have a hard time seeing them doing that Sunday since Bill Belichick surely has been harping on it 24 hours a day. Plus, they should hold a decided advantage against the run and pass versus Seahawks tackles Russell Okung and Justin Britt. Vince Wilfork will plug the middle and keep Wilson’s running avenues limited there as well.
In the pass game, expect Darrelle Revis to shadow Seattle’s best in Doug Baldwin. New England knows Seattle will target the weaknesses of former Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, so I would expect Belichick to put Browner on tight end Luke Willson, who has developed into a solid receiving tight end. That leaves Seahawks receivers Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette against Patriots corners Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan. This is where Wilson must do most of his damage, and the key for Seattle offensively.
But the Patriots can do what the Packers did by limiting Wilson and Lynch during much of the NFC Championship Game. This Patriots unit is better than the Packers, and New England has the mental toughness and situational awareness not to let the game slip away as Green Bay did.
It’s going to be a great Super Bowl matchup that features the two best teams and coaches in the game. In the end, I’m giving a slight edge to the Patriots.
Final score: Patriots 16, Seahawks 13.
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