The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks have made it to Week 22.
A week removed from their conference title matchups, New England and Seattle now stand a week from their Super Bowl XLIX matchup in Glendale. But before the final two teams head into it, here is a look into six matchups that could be the difference during it.
The rest will be determined Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Lynch vs. Patriots Linebackers: Marshawn Lynch posted 1,306 rushing yards, 367 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns in 2014. And after being held in check during the divisional round, he proceeded to post 183 all-purpose yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Seahawks halfback runs with the size, speed and violence to break into the open field. And behind a Seattle offensive line that blends zone with power, Patriots linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower will look to keep him from getting there. There will be second-level blocks from the likes of center Max Unger, but there will also be a collective effort from New England’s defensive front to establish the edge and keep the six-time 1,000-yard back from breaking inside out. Lynch led the league in yards after contact this season.
Wilson vs. Ninkovich: Lynch isn’t the only one New England will be mindful of when establishing the edge. Quarterback Russell Wilson rushed for 854 yards and six touchdowns with his feet during the regular season, and he rushed for over 200 yards off the right side alone. Wilson’s arm can do damage, yet his legs are a threat the Patriots cannot let roam free. Left end Rob Ninkovich looms at the center of that emphasis, fresh off a performance in which he stayed in his lane against a maneuvering Indianapolis Colts quarterback by the name of Andrew Luck. He’ll be vying to do so against Justin Britt or Alvin Bailey at right tackle this time, but Wilson will remain the main point of contingency thenceforth.
Okung vs. Jones: Chandler Jones hasn’t faced Seattle since his rookie season with New England. It was then – versus guard James Carpenter and former Seahawks tight end Zach Miller – that the first-round defensive end registered two sacks and forced a fumble on Wilson. But it was also then that Jones logged his first snaps versus Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung, whom he will meet again off the edge on Feb. 1. Jones notched six sacks in 10 games during the regular season, while Okung allowed just one sack in 14 games, according to Pro Football Focus. How the two bookends fare will largely dictate how Seattle’s passing game fares.
Chancellor vs. Gronkowski: Rob Gronkowski and Kam Chancellor have six Pro Bowls between them. But the Patriots tight end and the Seahawks strong safety have not shared the same field since October of 2012, when Gronkowski caught six passes for 61 yards opposite Chancellor as well as linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. And whether it’s via Cover-3, Cover-1 or two-deep man, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski and the 6-foot-3, 233-pound Chancellor will cross paths again as two of the best at their positions. Downhill contact will follow, only it’s uncertain which side will be delivering it.
Bennett vs. New England’s Right Side: Michael Bennett isn’t restricted to his left defensive end spot on Seattle’s defensive line. He will move inside against the pass, and he’ll kick back out versus the run. And providing Patriots rookie center Bryan Stork is healthy enough to go, Bennett will go up against both right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and right guard Ryan Wendell. The 6-foot-4, 274-pound Seahawk gets off the ball with explosiveness, and he gets out of engagement with long, heavy arms. Bennett puts those attributes to use as works diagonally through the B-gap with the same impact he would heading straight ahead through the C-gap. Double-teams could be the byproduct, but the Patriots will have to choose wisely with right defensive end Cliff Avril leading Seattle with two sacks in the postseason.
Sherman vs. Edelman: Richard Sherman casts a wide net on the left half of the Seahawks’ defense, and it will now be wideout Julian Edelman’s turn to escape it. Sherman limited quarterbacks to 34-of-72 passing with one touchdown and six interceptions from Week 1 through Week 20, according to Pro Football Focus. And along the way to being named a first-team All-Pro cornerback for the third time, Sherman left many quarterbacks looking the other way. But it remains to be seen if that will be the case for Tom Brady. The Patriots’ offense could disperse Edelman – who has caught 109 passes in 16 total games this year – elsewhere to work against the grain of Seattle’s gameplan.