Super Bowl XLIX  

 

Super Bowl XLIX: Seahawks-Patriots rife with riveting storylines

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PHOENIX -- It is rare that the Seattle Seahawks, famed for announcing their arrival on the contending scene two years ago by asking one of the game's biggest stars if he was mad, appear to be the quiet, contemplative team. But last week, they went about their Super Bowl XLIX preparations in what might as well have been a media blackout.

Rob Gronkowski isn't that good? Tom Brady isn't as clean-cut as everybody thinks? The Seahawks' routine provocations didn't even rise to the level of background noise compared to the hysteria that engulfed the New England Patriots. The Patriots, of course, are used to dealing with Super Bowl pressure, this being the franchise's sixth trip with Brady and Bill Belichick, and the second in which controversy trailed them all the way to the Arizona desert. But air pressure is another matter, and it is the one that consumed the run-up to the team arrivals here and threatens to overwhelm even the normal absurdities that annually fill the hours until kickoff. DeflateGate inquisitions and jokes might make us long for the time when Media Day attendees dressed as superheroes and brides were what counted as distractions.

The NFL's inquiry into the underinflation of the Patriots' footballs in the AFC Championship Game will continue, with punishment -- if it is found any is merited -- almost certainly not coming until long after everybody has returned home. The league, under significant scrutiny itself after its own missteps during the Ray Rice investigation, is determined to get this one right, however long that takes and whatever it ultimately means. At the end of last week, as the teams packed their bags, nobody could say how long that would be, presenting the NFL with the surreal possibility that, depending on what the investigation finds, it could crown the Patriots as champions one day and hammer them the next. After a season in which uncomfortable questions about player and league behavior off the field ran parallel to the games, it seems oddly fitting -- and, yes, deflating -- that even the biggest game of all won't escape the shadow of scandal.

But on Sunday will come the reward, a showdown that appeared predetermined for at least the last two months of the regular season, and which ensures that the NFL will have a dynasty on its hands -- either a burgeoning one from Seattle or an extended one from New England. The Seahawks gave us a definitive answer to an eternal football question a year ago -- offense or defense? -- but this time, the matchup will also provide a stark contrast in management styles.

Belichick's unexpected appearance Saturday to explain the physics of football deflation and to defend the integrity of his team was a surprise in large part because such an exhaustive, detailed presentation was so out of character for the normally taciturn coach, who often leaves the public charming to the team's powerful and highly visible owner, Robert Kraft. Kraft, of course, hired Belichick to replace Pete Carroll, Belichick's opposite in public style. Carroll, who is very much the face of the Seahawks, while owner Paul Allen remains far out of view even to other owners, joked Sunday about how much he loved sacking Dan Marino when he was a young defensive assistant and laughed when he said that his now-warm relationship with Kraft wasn't so great for the first few weeks after he was fired. He even gamely admitted understanding that Belichick might not have known about the condition of the game footballs until this week's inquiry began.

"I'm better versed today than I was a week or so ago," Carroll said. "Things come up and we have to face things sometimes for the first time. I never checked on the whole process of how our footballs were handled until this week. I can empathize with Coach Belichick in that way."

That almost certainly won't be the last word on the topic this week. But this could be the last word on the historical trends entering this game: Since the 1970 merger of the AFL and NFL, teams that have the top-ranked scoring defense are 13-3 in the Super Bowl and have won seven of the last eight times -- that, of course, includes the 2013 Seahawks.

Here, as Super Sunday approaches, are some of the key storylines surrounding the biggest game on the NFL calendar:

» Why might the Patriots succeed where the Broncos failed? Last year's Super Bowl provided a referendum on how football is played today, and the Seahawks came down resoundingly on the side of defense, obliterating Denver's top-ranked, high-scoring offense with the force of a jam at the line of scrimmage. It is tempting to think of the Patriots as being a carbon copy of the Broncos because of Brady's prowess with the pass. But the Patriots are a much more balanced team than Denver was last season -- and than the Patriots themselves have been in a while, perhaps even since the last time they won the Super Bowl 10 years ago. They finished the regular season ranked 11th in total offense (fourth in scoring offense), ninth in the passing game and 18th in the running game. The surprise is their defense, ranked 13th overall -- it hasn't been that high since 2009 -- and eighth in scoring defense.

So where is the potential flaw in Belichick's machine? The Patriots lost just four games this season -- but three of those losses came against signal-callers who finished the regular season ranked among the top eight in rushing yards by quarterbacks (Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Kansas City's Alex Smith and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers). Seattle's Russell Wilson led that category this season, with a career-high 849 rushing yards on a career-high 118 rushing attempts. He also posted a league-best 7.2 yards per carry. And he's particularly effective on third down, posting a league-leading 213 rushing yards on that down.

The conventional wisdom is that Belichick's defense will try to take Marshawn Lynch and the running game out of it, forcing things into Wilson's hands and trying to make him throw from the pocket. The danger, it would seem, is that Wilson could get outside of it.

"What's tough about him is he doesn't mind doing either one," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "If it's too many guys in front of him, his head is down, he's looking at them, but as soon as it clears up, he's right back downfield. You see a lot of maybe third-and-15s or third-and-16s where it's almost like they know this play is probably going to last six, maybe eight, 10 seconds, and the receivers never stop. I think that's the toughest part on the secondary of having a guy like that, but then having a whole receiving group that knows it, and they're either running deep or if they're deep they're coming back to him. We've really got to defend every part of the field."

» Does Seattle's defense have any weaknesses? Well, maybe there is one -- though it's a bad one to have for this game.

The Seahawks' defense allowed 11 touchdowns to tight ends during the regular season, tied for third most in the league. The Patriots happen to have the most important non-quarterback on the field in the form of Gronkowski, who had 12 touchdown receptions in the regular season, tied for most among tight ends.

That would seem to fly in the face of this assessment by Seattle nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane.

"I actually don't think he's that good," Lane said. "He's OK. He does have a big body. But from what I've seen on tape, he doesn't like you putting your hands on him. So if we put our hands on him and shake him up a little bit, he won't catch that many balls."

Oh. Carroll quickly corrected the record by noting that Lane hadn't watched the tape yet.

The Patriots often use Gronkowski in bunch formations, which allow him to get his share of free releases, and that is when he bounds around the seam like a kid playing in a bounce house.

When Seattle and New England met in the 2012 regular season, Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor and linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner managed to hold Gronkowski to six receptions for 61 yards. Seattle's defense is built to defend Gronkowski because it is long and physical -- much like Gronkowski himself.

Chancellor, the looming safety of the Legion Of Boom, figures to spend the most time Sunday on Gronkowski, who is especially lethal in the red zone, from which 46 of his 59 career touchdowns have been scored.

» Finally, we'll get an answer to this question: Who is the best cornerback in football? Last week, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said he doesn't know anybody who wouldn't consider him the league's best at his position. Which prompted New England's Darrelle Revis to respond: "That's great."

A lot is probably going to be made of this being the first Super Bowl without a starting quarterback drafted in the first round since the 2004 edition of the game, when Brady's Patriots defeated Jake Delhomme's Carolina Panthers. But the more fascinating comparison will come on the other side of the field, between Sherman and Revis.

There are a few differences. At 6-foot-3, Sherman is four inches taller than Revis; Sherman is lankier, too. Revis moves around the field, lining up on both sides and in the slots, and throughout his career has often been assigned to shadow the opponent's top receiver. Sherman, meanwhile, is almost exclusively lined up on the left side of the defense.

The similarities: Both have excellent ball skills and are lauded for their preparation and knowledge of their opponents.

Sherman's opposing passer rating (41.5) is the lowest among cornerbacks in the regular season since 1995. He is even better in the postseason, allowing the lowest passer rating (18.1) among active players. Deion Sanders is second to Sherman in the regular-season ranking (with a 43 passer rating against him) and Revis, at 26.2, is second to Sherman in the postseason. But don't let the stats sway you. Any of the other teams in the league would be delighted to have either Sherman or Revis in their secondary.

» Will DeflateGate make any impact beyond the sound bites? The Patriots are sure to be asked about the league's investigation all week, but the only thing that matters for their immediate future is whether it takes enough of their time and attention to make a difference Sunday. Belichick is a master at compartmentalizing and shielding his team from outside noise. During Spygate, he famously addressed his team exactly once, when the scandal first started, saying he would handle it and never mentioning it again, while his team used it for motivational fuel.

Brady addressed his teammates last week. While there are plenty of veterans in the locker room, this is a relatively inexperienced Super Bowl roster, with only Brady and Vince Wilfork remaining from the last Patriots team that won a Super Bowl a decade ago.

The good news for the Patriots: The focus of this investigation is falling mostly on Belichick and Brady, and it is hard to question their credentials when it comes to staying cool under fire.

Even Carroll doesn't think it will matter much to the Patriots.

"I think it's common when you feel like you're under attack, it draws you closer," Carroll said. "They have been around a long time; I would think they would rally together. We understand they are dealing with a distraction they don't want. I'm sure they are doing it really well and handling it the best way possible."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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