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The Key to Super Bowl 49? Guy by the Name of Gronk

Here's why the Patriots' all-pro tight end, and more specifically the Seahawks defenders in charge of slowing him down, will determine the outcome in Arizona. Plus 10 things to watch for Sunday and, oh yeah, my official game prediction...

TEMPE, Ariz. — Did Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright’s sly smile tell it all?

I’ve got this theory about Super Bowl 49 that isn’t exactly breaking news: Rob Gronkowski is the key player. If he blows up, New England wins. If Seattle manages to beat him up in the five-yard bump zone (and a couple of yards beyond, if Bill Vinovich’s officiating crew lets the players play like it’s an NBA playoff game) and keeps the ball from him, Seattle wins.

This Seattle defense last faced a game-changing tight end twice in a six-week span of the 2013 season. New Orleans visited Seattle in Week 13 and in the divisional playoff round, and the Seahawks, using Wright and strong safety Kam Chancellor and both starting corners, manhandled all-world tight end Jimmy Graham for eight long quarters. Wright was particularly effective as Drew Brees tried Graham 15 times in those games, connecting on four passes for a measly 50 yards. So I wanted to know if the preparation for Super Bowl 49, against unanimous AP All-Pro tight end Gronkowski, reminded Wright of that first game against the Saints, when he often was jamming Graham coming off the line.

Wright smiled. “Whenever you have a main target that you know the quarterback loves to go to and you know that you’re gonna be on him, you know you’ve got to stand up," Wright said. “You know the ball is coming this guy’s way, with everyone watching—you don’t want to get exposed."

The MMQB On Super Bowl 49

Richard Sherman on stardom, SB49, Goodell and impending fatherhood The roots of Russell WilsonInside Bill Belichick’s football library—the books that made the manDavid Tyree remembers the last time the Super Bowl was played in Arizona Bedard’s prediction: Why the Patriots will win The men playing in XLIX are remembered by high school and college coaches Everything you need to know about Patriots-SeahawksThe MMQB’s Super Bowl Hub

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Now, Gronkowski isn’t Graham. Gronkowski is better. He likes the physical stuff. Graham is diminished by the physical stuff. But if Wright plays Gronkowski often, I think his assignment is going to be to slow him down and be sure he doesn’t get the

free releases

he obviously wants. Throw off his timing. Make him fight through traffic. Occasionally double him near the line with Chancellor. Give corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell a shot at him when Gronkowski lines up wide. That’s the challenge for Seattle, and talking to Wright on Thursday, you could see the wheels were in motion, just thinking about it.

“Different players don’t like physicality," Wright said. “At that time, last season, he [Graham] was one of them. He struggled with press coverage. When you watched film of him, guys would just play off of him and just let him run seven-on-seven routes. You can’t let him get a running start or he’ll just have a field day with you. But I believe Gronk is different. I believe that he excels sometimes in physical coverage. He excels in off-coverage. He does good with both of them. For the most part what I’ve seen is that guys that are up on him have more success than versus off."

There you have it: The game within the game will be isolating Gronkowski on every Patriots’ snap; you can bet NBC will be ready with a dedicated replay camera on Gronk, to see how he’s treated by the Seattle D. The opportunistic Malcolm Smith made enough plays last year to earn a stunning MVP nod in Super Bowl 48. In a low-scoring game, if defense truly is valued and wins the day, who knows? Wright could be the kind of player who will be in the middle of enough plays to contend.

“[Gronkowski] is a very important piece of the puzzle," said Wright. “So am I. It’s gonna be a battle out there. I expect to win every matchup I’m out there against him."

I don’t. I also think the way Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn thinks, the Seahawks will change things up on the Patriots. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels feels the same way. “I think we'll probably see a lot of different matchups with Rob in this game because they're not a team that's going to play man-to-man coverage the entire game," McDaniels said Thursday. “Some of that will probably be dependent on where we put Rob. I'm quite certain if he's outside, there's going to be some examples of Sherman or Maxwell covering him. There will be some times where Wright or Chancellor or [middle linebacker Bobby] Wagner will definitely be on him. They play a lot of zone defense, so wherever we choose to line Rob, we're going to see some different matchups there. And, ultimately when they play man to man, K.J. Wright is going to come out and do a good job against most tight ends."

Said Pats tight end Tim Wright, an ex-Buccaneer who played against K.J. Wright last season: “I went up against him, and watching film on this year too, you can't help but notice how involved he is in man-to-man coverage.’’

* * *

So here’s my other X-factor in Sunday’s game: Tom Brady’s veteran eyes.

I am picking New England because:

  • I think Gronkowski will break through traffic to make a few plays—70 to 90 yards’ worth—and the defensive occupation with him will make other Patriots receivers’ lives easier.
  • New England tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (who shut down Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil in a tremendously underrated AFC divisional playoff performance) will give Brady just enough time to make plays.
  • Brady will target whoever finds himself on nickelback Jeremy Lane (I think he’s who New England will pick on), most likely either Danny Amendola, reborn this postseason, or Julian Edelman.

I can’t have any more respect for a competitor than I do for Russell Wilson. Read Robert Klemko’s story to see how he got to be such a crazy competitor. It’s hard to pick against him, and against determined earth-mover Marshawn Lynch, who is playing like the Earl Campbell of this era. And the Seattle defense, if it gets the kind of momentum it played with 52 weeks ago, could win this game by itself.

But New England’s defense also is playing well, particularly the secondary. I am wary about picking against Seattle, because I did so last year and the result was embarrassing.

New England, 31-28. I see some defensive points mixed in. It’s going to be a great game.

Patriots special-teamer Matthew Slater could make a game-changing play in Super Bowl XLIX. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Patriots special-teamer Matthew Slater could make a game-changing play in Super Bowl XLIX. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

You mean, other than K.J. Wright? Here’s one:

Matthew Slater, wide receiver/special-teamer, New England (number 18). In a tight game with two very good special-teams units, it’s clear a play in the kicking game could win it. Witness the onside kick recovery by Seattle’s Chris Matthews in the NFC title game. Just a hunch, but Slater and Jonathan Casillas, two slithery, hard-to-block players on special-teams plays, are my favorites to make a big play to influence the outcome.

Bose Sound Bite of the Week

Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Marshawn Lynch:

"Hey look, I mean all week, I done told y’all what's up. And for some reason y’all continue to come back and do the same thing that y’all did. I don't know what story y’all trying to get out of me, I don't know what image y’all trying to portray of me, but it don't matter what y’all think, what y’all say about me, because when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face, my family, that I love, that's all that really matters to me.

"So y’all can go and make up whatever y’all want to make up, because I don't say enough for y’all to go and put anything out on me, but I'll come to y’all event, and y’all shove cameras and microphones down my throat, but when I'm at home, in my environment, I don't see y’all. But y’all mad at me. And if y’all ain't mad at me, then what y’all here for?

[Reporter says "actually, I'm not mad at you..."]

"I ain't got nothing for y’all though. I told y’all that, so y’all should know that. But y’all will sit here like right now and continue to do the same thing. I'm here preparing for a game and y’all want to ask me all these questions... which is understandable, I can get down with that. But I told y’all, I'm not about to say nothin'. So for the remainder of my [checks clock] what's that, three minutes, because I'm here, I'm available for y’all, I'm here, I'm available for y’all, I done talked, all of my requirements are fulfilled, so now for these next three minutes, I'll just be looking at y’all, the way that y’all lookin' at me. Thank you."

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Regular Old Quote of the Week

"That's obviously gotta happen. I can't imagine having a Pro Football Hall of Fame without Junior Seau in it."

—New England coach Bill Belichick, on the Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy of the late Junior Seau, the linebacker who played for Belichick at the end of his storied career.

• FRIDAY INTERVIEW: Jenny Vrentas talks to Jerome Bettis about his shot at Canton

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

The MMQB On Super Bowl 49

The Legion of Boom on what unites them, and where they stand in historyThe battle for the Lombardi Trophy will be a close one

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1. Richard Sherman’s baby. 

His fiancée is in town, and she is expected to give birth to their first child together any day, and Sherman won’t say what will happen if the baby comes, say, Sunday around 4:30 p.m. local time. Which, of course, is almost game time. Seems that most people around the team are not too worried about it and expect him to play.

2. The latest on football inflation. Look, news is going to come out in drips and drabs, but we're not going to know the full story (particularly the part about how much pressure was in every football) until the Ted Wells report comes out in a few months.

3. Tom Brady’s cold. Vying for status as “Biggest Nonstory in Super Bowl History," which is a pretty low bar.

4. Hall of Fame voting. The 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will go into College-of-Cardinals mode Saturday at 7 a.m. They will vote yes or no on: one Seniors candidate (Vikes center Mick Tingelhoff), two Contributor candidates (former GMs Bill Polian and Ron Wolf) and 15 Modern Era finalists (led by Seau, who seems the most logical guy to go in). After Seau, my expectation is Orlando Pace has the best shot of the newbies.

5. Long waits ending? Charles Haley and Tim Brown have agonized through many years as finalists, and I’ve got to think the wait ends for at least one of them Saturday.

6. The envelope, please. Gut feelings … Tingelhoff, Wolf and Polian, who need 80 percent of the vote from the 46 voters, will make it … Seau and Pace will make it … Marvin Harrison, Haley and Will Shields round out the five-man Class of 2015 … Best debates: Kurt Warner, Tony Dungy, Terrell Davis.

7. The end of the furor over Marshawn Lynch not speaking. Collectively, the national media has spent far too much time documenting what the Seattle running back isn’t saying. Of course, he could end it all by simply giving some pat answers to silly questions. But if he doesn’t want to, and he wants to mock the process, the time is over when we all should care. Let’s all move on.

8. Momentum for expanding instant replay. With the news that the Detroit Lions would like replay to include all penalized plays, look for Detroit and New England to push for rapidly expanded replay scenarios in March.

9. The garish specter of the Aaron Hernandez murder trial taking place simultaneously with final Super Bowl preparations. I think the Greeks wrote a tragedy about that once.

10. The amazing health of the two teams Sunday. Ever been a time when all 106 active players were healthy and practicing all through Super Bowl week? I doubt it.

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