If there was a game to leave a mark, it would be this one.
The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will look to do just that Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX. And in this matchup, with these personnel groups, with these brands of offense and defense, certain players could leave a mark far deeper than expected.
A 2011 seventh-round linebacker named Malcolm Smith did so last February, returning a Peyton Manning interception for a touchdown and recovering a fumble on the way to being named MVP.
Whether or not one of the following five will be named MVP this February is a discussion for another day. But how the game unfolds could see them have a hidden impact on it.
Jermaine Kearse, Wide Receiver: Over the course of the regular season, Kearse ranked 85th in receiving yards while playing for a team that ranked 27th in passing yards. Even so, what the former undrafted free agent has been able to do in the postseason ranks far higher. In his last four playoff games dating back to January of 2014, Kearse has compiled 10 receptions for 273 yards and four touchdowns. And at 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, the Washington product has shown the size and long speed to work deep downfield, catching seven passes of 20-plus yards this year. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson targeted him on each of his four interceptions in the NFC Championship game, but his final target resulted in the game-winning touchdown from 35 yards out in overtime.
Tim Wright, Tight End: From October through November, Wright caught six touchdowns in a seven-game span. From December through January, he caught three passes in another seven-game span. The former Rutgers Scarlet Knight and Tampa Bay Buccaneer brings a wide-receiving mold to the Patriots’ tight end position, and at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he once was one. Yet with each passing week, forecasting Wright’s usage has been trying. He’s played just eight snaps in New England’s two postseason games, according to Pro Football Focus, though the feeling here is that Rob Gronkowski’s presence against safety Kam Chancellor and the Seahawks’ Cover-3 could open up space underneath.
Luke Willson, Tight End: Willson isn’t Gronkowski, nor is he Wright, but he is emerging at the right time for the Seahawks. The second-year tight end has collected 11 receptions for 250 yards and three touchdowns in his last five games, after collecting 39 receptions for 480 yards and two touchdowns in his previous 31. Stopping the former third-stringer after the catch is something the Patriots cannot overlook. Whether it be with cornerback Brandon Browner, strong safety Patrick Chung or linebacker help, it will be integral. Willson will line up in the backfield and out wide. And he’ll spike the ball if he gets into the end zone from there.
Byron Maxwell, Cornerback: Maxwell may not be a household name across the field from perennial first-team All-Pro Richard Sherman, but he is expected to be treated like one in free agency this March. And he is expected to play like one this Sunday. New England may look away from Sherman, who has netted six interceptions while allowing only one touchdown this year, and that may turn the focus to Maxwell. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound cornerback will see his share of Brandon LaFell off the right side of Seattle’s defense. How he responds will largely determine just how much of a vertical impact New England’s receivers have on the game.
Rob Ninkovich, Defensive End: Ninkovich has made a career out of doing the little things, and that was illustrated against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago, when he read his keys versus the run and made the most of his lane versus the pass. It will be a similar itinerary for him this Sunday against the Seahawks, and it will be centered around discipline at the mesh point. The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Patriots left end will be asked to sway the traffic of Wilson’s read-option plays, all while keeping Marshawn Lynch’s running game from breaking off the right tackle. He may not register a sack as a byproduct, but he will register in the end result if New England’s safeties can afford to stay back.