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Super Bowl XLIX New England/Seattle Preview

Will Brady be mad after today's game?

Will Brady be mad after today’s game?

I’ve done Super Bowl previews the last two years, but I decided not to go with the full-fledged Super Bowl preview this year. One reason: Bill Barnwell’s outstanding preview is so excellent and exhaustive that well, I didn’t have much else to say.

But I do have some high-level thoughts. Regular readers know that I’m a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about rating teams and players and trying to make adjustments to make high-level comparisons across eras. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that in any one game, matchups can matter more than pure talent. Last year, I thought the Seahawks were a bad matchup for the Broncos, and I tweeted as much before the 2013 conference championship games. I still believe that if the 49ers had scored on that final drive against the Seahawks, then Peyton Manning would have another Super Bowl in his trophy case.

But the matchups this year are kind of weird, a fact that Barnwell detailed well in his preview. When Darrelle Revis was with the Jets, fans often bemoaned that he was a “waste” against a Patriots team that threw to Wes Welker in the slot and to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Jets may have had a star cornerback, but the Patriots didn’t have a star outside wide receiver, and the Jets best player was essentially neutralized when playing New England.

Here, something similar will happen, but for both teams. Revis will be manned up on Doug Baldwin and well, okay. So instead of four catches, Baldwin will have… two? The hunch is that Richard Sherman will see a lot of Brandon LaFell, which means the Seahawks best cornerback will be isolated on the Patriots third-best receiver (behind Gronkowski and Julian Edelman).

Certain teams are built with the idea of beating other teams in mind: the Jets, after trading Revis, have built the team with the Patriots in mind. And this year, the Jets lost two games to the Patriots by 3 points; meanwhile, in New York’s other 14 games against worse competition, the Jets were outscored by an average of 8.2 points per game.

The Patriots and Seahawks have mostly built themselves with the idea of creating the most versatile and best version of their teams, not necessarily with any one team in mind. But to the extent they have constructed their rosters with a specific opponent in mind, it’s the Broncos and 49ers. The Patriots added Revis and Brandon Browner to help stop a dynamic Denver passing attack. Seattle has constructed a roster that tries to out-throwback the 49ers, with a run-heavy attack and a suffocating defense, while mixing in the occasional deep pass (whether to Jermaine Kearse or to the team’s highest draft pick in 2014, Paul Richardson).

But the Seahawks look nothing like the Broncos, and the Patriots are nothing like the 49ers, either. What does that mean? I actually expect both defenses to have to operate a little outside of their comfort zone. I think New England will try to spread out the Seahawks defense, and I’m not sure that’s how Seattle wants to play.

A base formation with Gronkowski, Edelman, Shane Vereen, either LaFell or Danny Amendola, and Tim Wright would provide maximum flexibility for the Pats. New England could overpower Seattle if the Seahawks go to a nickel or dime set; after all, this would be a 2-TE formation for the Pats. But if Seattle doesn’t bring extra defensive backs on the field, you’ll have a linebacker on a couple of those players, and that could be a mismach if Tom Brady is accurate. I don’t think Seattle will bring in the extra defensive backs, which puts the onus on Brady.  Typically, the Seahawks do not play dime, as it takes either Bobby Wagner or K.J. Wright off the field. Whether or not a Vereen or Amendola or Wright can take advantage of those linebackers could be a critical part of the game.

I don’t expect the Patriots to have much success on the ground tonight. The Seahawks run defense is outstanding by any standard, and the Patriots running attack is not great when facing the other 30 teams in the NFL.1 That puts the ball in Brady’s hands, but the concern I have for the Patriots is that the Seahawks are outstanding at tackling in space and limiting yards after the catch.

Brady ranked 22nd in average air yards gained per completion this year, which jives with the eye test: Brady is not very good at throwing down the field, and the Patriots often don’t even try. At their best, New England moves the chains with short passes and yards after the catch. But the Seahawks were in the top five in YAC allowed per catch in 2014 (4.92) and even better in 2013 (4.40); their ability to limit yards after the catch in the Super Bowl could prove to be the deciding factor.

I do think there is a chance that this game turns into a blowout, potentially on either side. While Russell Wilson has been excellent when trailing, an early New England lead could take the Seahawks out of their comfort zone. If the Patriots get up early, I could see Wilson pressing, and Revis and the Patriots strong secondary forcing even more mistakes. Basically, a less-dominant version of the AFC Championship Game.

Similarly, Seattle is the best frontrunner in the NFL. And we saw what they did in the Super Bowl last year. If the Seahawks can get up 14-0, it would make the Patriots very one-dimensional. While New England almost never gets blown out, I could see a 30-17 game that never really feels in doubt.

I expect Marshawn Lynch to have a big game (remember, the Patriots have not constructed a roster designed to stop the run, and seven different running backs rushed for at least 90 yards in a game against New England this year), and Wilson to do what he typically does: that means gain some big yards on the ground, connect on big passes at key moments, and look better than his stats suggest. My biggest concern for Seattle is that basically the entire Legion of Boom is banged up: Kam Chancellor injured his knee on Friday, while Sherman (elbow) and Earl Thomas (shoulder) are dealing with injuries that would normally be described as serious but for some reason (the two week layoff? Incredible Seattle healing powers? Sherman and Thomas are supermen?) are being dismissed by most.

Okay, you all just scrolled down to the bottom for the prediction, so here it is. The Seahawks and Patriots play an even game, but Seattle is much better in the red zone. Seattle wins 27-18, which includes a missed two-point conversion and four field goals for the Pats. After the missed conversion while trailing 20-18, the Seahawks run out the clock, and that drive ends with a touchdown run to ice the game.

  1. Excluding the Colts, naturally. []