Two weeks have passed since the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks last played a football game.
Much has been said, and much has been prepared for in the days since then. But the wait will come to an end in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday night. And leading up to it, here are some parting notes on what will be the last game of the NFL season.
Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. ET.
Full Circle at Head Coach: Seahawks Super Bowl-winning head coach Pete Carroll once occupied the same position for the Patriots. From 1997 through 1999, Carroll went 27-21 before being supplanted by Bill Belichick in 2000. Flash forward 15 years, the two remain the lone head coaches Patriots owner Robert Kraft has hired.
A First Encounter: New England and Seattle have never met one another in the postseason. The last meeting between them was in October of 2012, a game the Seahawks battled back to win in the drizzling rain at CenturyLink Field, 24-23.
Present and Accounted: All signs point towards center Bryan Stork suiting up for the Patriots, after the rookie fourth-rounder returned to practice last week and was upgraded to probable Saturday. His projected return from a knee injury suffered in the divisional round should set New England’s offensive line back to its equilibrium, with interim center Ryan Wendell back at right guard. As for others on that side of the ledger, defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, as well as linebackers Akeem Ayers and Dont’a Hightower appear on track after being limited participants in practice due to their respective injuries. Seattle’s side is along those same lines, with running back Marshawn Lynch, offensive tackle Justin Britt, guard J.R. Sweezy, cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas all full participants to close the week. Strong Safety Kam Chancellor was added to the report as probable with a knee injury, however.
Seahawks Pressure at Forefront: Seattle’s defense has amassed three sacks for a loss of 27 yards through two postseason games, but its production has been illustrated in other ways. Five quarterback hits and nine hurries in the conference title game were preceded by six quarterback hits and 21 hurries in the divisional round, according to Pro Football Focus. Four interceptions and a forced fumble were in the byproduct. With a front line of Cliff Avril, Tony McDaniel, Kevin Williams and Michael Bennett, the Seahawks have been known to work interchangeably, with Bennett leading the charge in both the B-gaps and C-gaps. If he is doubled thenceforth from the left end or left defensive tackle spot, Avril is one to watch for cleaning up off the right side. How Patriots tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer respond will translate in how quarterback Tom Brady does. Brady was hurried just five times in the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, but he’ll be going against another tier of pass rush this time.
Seattle’s Sudden Secondary: With Sherman on the right side, Byron Maxwell on the left, Jeremy Lane in the slot, Thomas deep and Chancellor close, the Seahawks’ starting secondary carries a combined nine Pro Bowls within it. From Cover-3 concepts and a share of man-free, the group will look to press and release from wideouts Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman on Sunday, all while tight end Rob Gronkowski is contained inside, outside and overhead. Seattle’s defense backs are fast and physical; they’re closers and tacklers. They know how to funnel route-runners inside, and they know how to recognize routes from high to low before delivering the boom they’ve been revered for. They are, in many ways, the closest things New England’s secondary has seen to themselves.
Legion’s Linebackers Key vs. Run: Bruce Irvin may leave the field from time to time, but fellow Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright stay on it until the end of time. And together, all three have functioned as one to stop the run in wide 4-3 alignments, rush the passer in six-man blitzes, and drop back into coverage to protect the hashes. They’ll look to hit on all three of those categories against New England. And while they’re coming off a game which saw the Green Bay Packers rush for 130 yards, it’s important to note that the Seahawks allowed an average of 3.4 yards per carry during the regular season. Stopping LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago, is something they’ve been scheming for. That doesn’t mean the Patriots will look away from the run, though, after going with “22” personnel and six linemen for much of the conference title matchup.
Containing Wilson, Lynch: At age 26, Russell Wilson will be youngest quarterback in NFL history to start two Super Bowls, and he’ll be the first quarter to start two over his first three NFL seasons. Yet even to get to this point, the elusive Seahawk amassed over 800 yards rushing during the 16-game slate, with much of that accumulation coming out of zone-read plays that forced opposing edge defenders to commit. The Patriots are likely to call upon Rob Ninkovich to commit to that off the left edge of the defensive line, while linebacker Dont’a Hightower keeps a watchful eye on running back Marshawn Lynch, who is fresh off his sixth 1,000-yard campaign. Seattle picked up a league-leading 2,762 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, sticking with it for a second-most 525 attempts. New England’s defense, on the other hand, allowed 1,669 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Something will give. How the Seahawks and Patriots meet in the zone-blocking scheme will dictate what exactly does.
Pairing with Seahawks Receivers: During media day at the US Airways Center, Seattle wideout Doug Baldwin told reporters he was going to Revis Island with sunblock, shades and a hat. We can take his word for it. Baldwin caught 66 passes for 825 yards and three scores during the regular season, yet he hasn’t faced Darrelle Revis since the cornerback was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. One’s known for quickness; one’s known for making music with technique, and they’ll vie for their own calling cards Sunday night. But even so, there is more to account for than Baldwin and Revis. Former Seahawks corner Brandon Browner may take some snaps in the box as a sub-package linebacker opposite tight end Luke Willson, who is a threat after the catch as much as the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner is a threat to halt those plays. Yet Browner could also line up against the 6-foot-1, 209-pound deep threat Jermaine Kearse out wide, while free safety Devin McCourty secures space overhead and strong safety Patrick Chung covers Willson. Those plans remain to be seen, but so do the plans for nickelback Kyle Arrington and dimeback Logan Ryan.
New England’s Super Bowl Appearances: It will be Super Bowl appearance No. 8 for the Patriots, tying the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers for the most of any team in NFL history. A win would make New England the sixth team in league history with over four Super Bowl victories. The franchise’s current win-loss record in those games is 3-4.
On the Line for Belichick, Brady: Belichick could tie Chuck Noll for most Super Bowl wins by head coach in NFL history if he can notch his fourth in Super Bowl XLIX. But the only certainty is that Belichick and Brady will make their sixth Super Bowl appearance together, which marks the most all-time by a head coach-quarterback tandem. The two have the most postseason wins by such a duo, with Belichick eclipsing Tom Landry with 21 earlier in the month, and Brady last eclipsing Joe Montana for the most of any quarterback in NFL history with 20. And now, Brady – one of two remaining from the team’s 2003 championship team – finds himself one touchdown short of becoming the first to throw for 50 in a postseason career.