A tantalising clash between reigning champions Seattle and the modern era dynasty New England awaits in Arizona on Sunday in what could be the greatest Super Bowl in years, writes Stephen Loftus.
After the countless debates over “deflategate” and the farcical scenes surrounding Marshawn Lynch at media day, the attention has finally turned to the prestigious game on Sunday.
Nine months of preparation ends in Glendale, Arizona where the destination of the Lombardi Trophy will be decided.
Seattle’s historic defence is pitted against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and the NFL’s equivalent to Sir Alex Ferguson.
This game is as even as it gets, so much so that the bookmakers in Las Vegas cannot decide on a favourite. Let’s now look at the key questions surrounding the game and where the game will be won and lost.
The New England Patriots’ “us against the world” mentality
“Deflategate” is not the first time the Patriots have been accused of cheating or trying to gain an illegal advantage in a high-profile game. 2007 saw the “Spygate” controversy when the Patriots were accused of videotaping New York Jets’ coaching signals.
Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for the incident and the phrase “not since spygate” has become familiar for Patriots fans, referring to their Super Bowl drought since the infamous controversy. After this new issue over the deflation of footballs was leaked, the three-time Super Bowl champions saw their credibility slashed again and the beginning of their new, “us against the world mentality”.
Everyone within the organisation has denied any wrongdoing in the incident but let’s face it, if New England win on Sunday, there will possibly be some outside of Boston who will be screaming cheating. The rest of America will undoubtedly be cheering on the Seahawks but it is this new-found rage that will spur the Patriots on.
Tom Brady and Belichick are sure to have this team fired up and one can be sure that once they get any sniff of the lead in this game, there will be no let up. Only a convincing victory will deflect the cheating criticism away from the franchise.
Cornerback and former Seattle “Legion of Boom” member Brandon Browner has already spoken of wanting to injure both Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. One can sense the anger within these Patriots players; their hunger and drive to succeed and the lust for not only a fourth Super Bowl victory but a convincing one at that.
Seattle’s historic defence
Analysts have compared this current crop of defensive players in Seattle to the 1985 Chicago Bears, widely acclaimed as the greatest defence in NFL history. The secondary has earned all the praise for their Super Bowl win last year but lately it has been the play of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner which has stood out.
Wagner returned to the lineup halfway through the season with the defence struggling to contain opposing running games but since his return, the whole defensive gameplan has changed and the Seahawks’ defence has returned to its legendary status.
He has racked up 73 tackles in just eleven games and will have responsibility for the crossing routes of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola on Sunday.
The only question mark over this defence is the status of Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas. Both suffered injuries in the 28-22 win over the Green Bay Packers in the Conference Championship game.
Sherman played the last quarter of the game with effectively one arm, after he suffered a painful elbow injury.
Thomas had to leave the game with a shoulder injury and while both are listed as probable to start the game, it is likely they will play. An early pick play from the Patriots will certainly test Sherman’s arm as you can be sure the Patriots will show no mercy in exploiting these injuries.
LeGarrette Blount vs Seattle’s defensive line
Bill Belichick’s offensive gameplan is constantly changing week to week but we are sure to see plenty of the powerhouse running back who dominated the Colts’ defensive line with 148 yards and three touchdowns last time.
Standing six feet tall and weighing 245 lbs, Blount has proved hard to bring down at the point of attack but he will face a whole new challenge on Sunday. The Seahawks’ defensive line lost its anchor, Brandon Mebane, midway through the season and since then have been rotating linemen in order to stop the running game.
Tony McDaniel and Kevin Williams make up the interior of the line with Bruce Irvin and Michael Bennettt on the outside. They struggled to contain Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy in the Conference Championship game, a running similar in stature to Blount, so they must improve in this facet of the game if they are to grab a second consecutive Lombardi trophy.
A lot of the Patriots’ running game momentum will depend on whether center Bryan Stork is able to play in the game. The rookie from Florida State is questionable to play with a knee injury and should he get on the field, this writer expects the Patriots to find success in this area of the game.
This is because Seattle usually deploy Kam Chancellor as the primary run-stopper from the secondary but he will probably be matched up with Rob Gronkowski so he will not be able to effect the running game in his usual hard-hitting style.
How do the Patriots stop Marshawn Lynch?
Not many teams have been able to contain “Beast Mode”, who revels in contact with opposing players and is able to break tackles in the blink of an eye. Lynch is averaging 108 yards per game in the play-offs and was the spark for an incredible comeback against Green Bay with his ability to break arm tackles and unrelenting drive to keep going forward.
The Patriots easily contained a very poor Indianapolis running game but the defensive line has largely struggled all year with the better running backs – Justin Forsett, Jamaal Charles etc. So how can they even attempt to contain Lynch?
I expect Jamie Colllins to be used as a spy for quarterback Russell Wilson and star cornerback Darrelle Revis to be used primarily on Doug Baldwin leaving the responsibility on Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork to bring down Lynch.
Unlike the Seahawks, New England will primarily stay with the same defensive line, with Wilfork and Sealver Siliga on the inside of the line. Belichick will look to make Seattle one dimensional on offence, putting the focus on Lynch to carry the Seahawks’ scoring load.
The read-option is a key facet of the Seahawks’ offence and it paid dividends in the Conference Championship game with the outside linebackers biting on a lot of the fakes from Wilson.
This writer expects to see Patrick Chung blitzing a lot from the secondary, trying to keep Wilson in the pocket. This is where the game will be won and lost.
It is very hard to go against Seattle given their record in big games and their ability to stop opposing quarterbacks. They will look to run the ball with force to set up the play-action pass but their lack of outside receivers is a major worry.
Tight-end Luke Willson must have a big game in order for Wilson to succeed with Baldwin locked up with Revis. On the defensive side, the health of Richard Sherman will have a major impact on the game if they are to stop Brady’s passing offence.
New England’s two main attacking options, LeGarrette Blount and Rob Gronkowski, should dominate the touches of the ball as Gronkowski has proved almost unstoppable when Brady needs a first down.
Look for the Patriots to exploit Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane with the short passing game involving Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman.
The defence must take away Russell Wilson’s passing game and if Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower can contain Wilson outside of the pocket, the Lombardi trophy will be returning to New England.
Seattle 20 New England 27
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