Last year I wrote a column explaining who I thought would win the Super Bowl and why. Because I went into writing the article already having picked who I thought would win without having done any actual analysis first, the column itself ended up not making much sense. The problem is that while I had prematurely picked who I thought would win basically off instinct, I also made sure to add actual analysis of the two teams in the column. That created a few uncomfortable sections where a particular data point didn't agree with my ultimate conclusion. I ended up having to "yada yada yada" through why it didn't matter instead of actually taking that data point into account and changing my prediction.
In layman's terms, I had to bullshit my way through my own column because everything I normally used to judge which team would win was telling me that my gut instinct was wrong. I acknowledged in a column after the fact that I shouldn't have held firm to saying the Denver Broncos would win when so much of my actual analysis was telling me the Seattle Seahawks were too strong for them up front. I just had it in my head that the Seahawks couldn't possibly keep up with the Broncos' "high-powered offense."
Well, wouldn't you know it? I almost made the same mistake this go around.
I saw the Seahawks struggle for more than three quarters to score against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship, and then I watched the New England Patriots blow the Indianapolis Colts out of the damn water in the AFC Championship later that evening. It would've been easy to think that the Seahawks can't possibly keep up with the Patriots on the scoreboard.
But then I had to pull back and remind myself that it won't be the Colts' defense opposing the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Hell, it won't be the Packers' defense facing the Seahawks' offense this Sunday, either. The only way to fairly assess who should win this game is to match these teams up against each other, not just rely on what they accomplished against other teams in their last games. Looking at it through that lens, my prediction came out quite different.
When the Patriots are on offense
Let me start with that vaunted Patriots' offense. New England showed against the Colts they can be as balanced an offense as you will ever see, when they want to be. With LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray toting the rock for 4-5 yards per carry, the Patriots can force opposing defenses into putting a safety in the box, which in turn should open up their passing game outside. When they really have it going on the ground, it also opens up the deep parts of the field for shots from the play action. An important, but undersold, benefit of being able to run the ball is that it also slows down the opposing defense's pass rush.
That is a big deal when you have a guy like Tom Brady at quarterback, who has a lot of savvy when moving around in the pocket, but poses little to no threat of running away from a dominant pass rush.
Having said that, there are two things that concern me about the Patriots' running game headed into the Super Bowl. One, I'm not sure they are going to commit to the running game with the weather presumably being nice in Arizona. This goes back to last season when Blount was also running like a wild man over every defense they put in front of him heading into the AFC Championship game against the Broncos. Those games at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs were played in somewhat inclement weather, which almost forced the Patriots to lean on the running game. Blount didn't always start off on fire, but in just about every game he broke off a big, back-breaking run in the second half due to the fact that the Patriots kept handing it to him and he eventually wore those defenses down. But just as soon as the weather was pretty like it was in the AFC Championship, the Patriots suddenly wanted to lean on their passing game instead.
I thought it was a mistake at the time, even before the loss, when there were rumors that the Patriots would come out chucking the ball around. I haven't changed my mind on the matter since they actually followed through on it. The Patriots' offense now is accustomed to winning by running the ball first and having everything else come off of that. If they make the same mistake in the Super Bowl and instead turn to a Brady-centered offensive game plan just because the weather is nice, I believe they will end up regretting it just as they did last season. When I think of the kind of pass rush the Seahawks can generate up front against that Patriots' offensive line rushing four against a pretty stationary Brady, I'm even more convinced that not committing to running the ball would be a huge mistake on Sunday.
Super Bowl 2015
Super Bowl 2015
I'm not sure they will make the same mistake of not running the ball enough, but I have to be convinced that Josh McDaniels doesn't want everyone to see how smart he is with all his cool passing plays before I will believe it. I just do not trust that guy, especially when his name is being thrown around again for possible head coach openings.
My second issue with whether the Patriots commit to running the ball is that I wonder if the team, and specifically Blount, aren't due for some fumbles. I have been watching Blount since he first came into the league as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and I know very well the issues he's had with ball security. Ironically enough, it took Greg Schiano coming in as head coach of the Bucs to get Blount's fumbling troubles under control. I say ironic because even though Schiano and/or his staff ultimately helped Blount fix that issue, Schiano was still the only head coach to ever have Blount on their roster and refuse to use him on offense. By the time Blount was shipped off to New England in April 2013 he not only was much better with his ball security, but he also some pretty fresh legs.
That's all good and everything, but you can see Blount fights so hard for extra yardage that he puts himself at risk of giving up the ball. Sometimes you have to know when to go down when you are in a crowd of guys snatching at the football, and nobody goes after the ball with any more ferocity on every single play than the Seahawks. If the Patriots do commit to giving Blount the ball 20 or more times -- which is what I think it will take for them to win the game -- then they will also have to be concerned with him coughing it up, especially later on in the game when he starts to get tired and the Seahawks keep gang tackling.
I know that puts them in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario, but when you think about the defense they're going against that's pretty much the scenario most teams are in when it comes to running the ball. Just think about how many people have second-guessed the Packers for running the ball three times with Eddie Lacy with just over five minutes left in the game and up 12 points. This was the same Lacy who had been running around and through the Seahawks for most of the game to that point. Who could have known that in that situation he would end up going for -4, -2 and +2 yards on those three plays?
Photo credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
If Lacy gets three yards in a cloud of dust each of those plays, then the Packers are knocking on the door of a first down and probably the game being over. However, you can't count on three yards and a cloud of dust against this Seahawks' defense, even on days where they start off shaky playing the run. But you have to run the ball to help mitigate their frenetic pass rush up front. That can put you in a situation where it seems like every answer is the wrong answer.
Okay, so maybe the running game is a wash for the Patriots, but what about their walking, talking, catching, running, scoring, spiking mismatch on offense, tight end Rob Gronkowski? I've said this before and I still believe it -- the Patriots' offense took off after the Kansas City Chiefs loss in Week 4 when everybody thought they were dead for one reason, and that's because Gronk picked it up from that game on. You can look for a bunch of other reasons and/or excuses why the light seemed to come on for the Patriots on offense -- I think I even heard somebody attribute it to a good pregame speech or something. All I know is in the first four weeks of the season, Gronkowski's high for receiving yardage was 44 yards, but the next five weeks he only had one game where he had less than 94 yards receiving. The Patriots won all five games.
When Gronk is balling it's hard to keep the Patriots contained on offense, because the attention paid to him usually opens up things for other guys on that offense.
The Seahawks, unlike most defenses, have a bunch of different ways they can go about matching up with Gronk. Whether it's Kam Chancellor rolling down to cover him in base as the eighth man in the box, or linebacker Bruce Irvin lining up over him in under defense and taking him at the line, the Seahawks don't really have to substitute to account for Gronkowski. If they do bring in more, defensive backs Tharold Simon or Jeremy Lane in nickel or dime should also be able to hold their own against Gronk. That isn't just happy talk, either. All of those guys are pretty good in coverage. You can also believe that free safety Earl Thomas will be lurking over the top to help them out with any deep routes from Gronkowski. I'm not saying he will get shut down, but I am saying he'll have to work his ass off for every yard he gets against that defense.
The other side of that equation is this -- the more Gronk goes out into routes means there is one less guy to help blocking that ferocious Seahawks' defensive line led by Michael Bennett, who literally lines up all over the place. If the Patriots don't keep in extra blockers or at least have the running backs chip heavily on the Seahawks' defensive ends, I would expect a lot of quick pressure in Brady's face all game long.
Brady is a master of getting the ball out fast, but to me that plays right into the Seahawks' hands. They want the quarterback to throw the ball fast so they can come up and knock the hell out of whomever catches the ball short of the line to gain a first down. Those quick passes tend to put receivers in a bind and provide opportunities for the Seahawks to deliver some "intimidating" hits before those guys can turn up the field for extra yardage. The reality is that there are flaws in the Seahawks' base cover-3 coverage, and they usually come on longer plays where the quarterback has a lot of time to throw and the route combinations have time to get further down field exposing holes in the coverage. The question of the game will be if the Patriots' pass protection holds up enough to allow for those kinds of plays to develop down field.
My answer to that is a resounding no.
Considering the fact I don't think Gronk will have a huge game and I also don't think Brady will have a lot of time in the pocket when he throws, I have to wonder how the other skill position guys for the Patriots will fare in the passing game. Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are decent role players at wide receiver who do their jobs pretty well, but if you're asking me if I'm picking one of those guys to have a big day against the likes of Seahawks cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, I'm going to give you the solemn but firm shake of the head.
That just isn't going to happen.
So to recap, the Patriots' best bet on offense is to ride Blount all game. However, I don't trust McDaniels to do that. If the Patriots do make the mistake of trying to lean on the pass too much early, the Seahawks' pass rush is going to feast on them and Gronkowski won't be much of a factor. Even if the Patriots do the smart thing and keep feeding Blount the ball, I believe he is due to fumble a time or two.
Oh, and those cute little eligible/ineligible plays the Patriots have been using of late to catch teams off guard? That works well against teams that like to match up man to man. Against a defense like the Seahawks that is primarily a zone team it shouldn't have much of an effect at all. All those guys have to do is say screw who is eligible and who isn't and just go through their normal zone drops. Let whomever comes to their zone come and disregard everything else.
I can tell you this much, if they try that shit where there is only a guard beside the center and no tackle I really hope Brady has all his insurance papers in order. I'm just saying.
After adding everything up, the Patriots' offense doesn't appear to be all that high-powered when matched up against a high-level, aggressive defense like the Seahawks'. If one of these teams is more in jeopardy of being blown out I'd put my money on the Patriots being on the wrong end of it this Sunday.
When the Seahawks are on offense
That's all fine and good, but even if the Patriots "only" score in the mid-to-high 20s, something they seem to do in their sleep, wouldn't that be enough to beat the Seahawks?
That was the question burning in the back of my brain as I try to predict how this Super Bowl will go. It's a tricky question because the Seahawks are so old-school on offense, which means there isn't much flash to what they do. Although Russell Wilson is one of the best young quarterbacks in the game in my opinion, he isn't going to throw the ball 40 or more times Sunday no matter what the score looks like early or late. I'm saying that knowing that Brady could easily throw the ball 50 times as he did just a couple of weeks ago against a stout Ravens' defense. For the Seahawks to win, especially on offense, they can't try to keep up with the Patriots on the scoreboard. Instead, they will have to have to try and draw the Patriots into their kind of game, where it is a knock down, drag out "fist fight" from beginning to end and then may the toughest team win.
A winning game plan for the Seahawks to me is one with Marshawn Lynch getting at least 21 carries and Wilson having at least 10 carries of his own.The one thing that has been noticeable to me for a few weeks now is that the Patriots are having some issues stopping the run. Colts running back Dan Herron only ran the ball 10 times but averaged more than 5 yards per carry for the game. In the Divisional round, Ravens running back Justin Forsett had almost 130 yards rushing on 24 carries. In Week 16, the New York Jets' top three running backs ran for 104 yards on 26 carries. And now Big Bad Beast Mode himself is coming to Arizona to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and the rumor is he is fresh out of Hubba Bubba.
Trouble, trouble! *Bernie Mac voice*
Now, I love defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, but he can't have much of an impact when his linebackers aren't doing a good job filling in behind him. The problem is, for as athletic as Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins is -- and make no mistake he's a freak of nature in that regard -- he doesn't exactly try to blow up the run when it comes right at him. I don't want to call the young man soft, but he could use a little more hot sauce in his diet is all I'm saying.
His penchant for trying to avoid blockers and contact rather than taking them on has left the Patriots pretty damn soft up the middle against the run, and that's something I would expect the Seahawks to exploit on a regular basis. If Lynch can get rolling early it's going to be a long day for the Patriots' front seven.
Of course, you can never discount Bill Belichick as a defensive strategist. I have a great deal of respect for him in that regard and with a team like the Seahawks, who are so committed to running the ball, I imagine Belichick will have devised a scheme to help shore them up inside. That is where Wilson running the ball at least 10 times will come into play.
I went back and watched the Patriots play the Miami Dolphins in Week 15. I remembered thinking at the time that the Dolphins had left a lot of yards on the ground out there because quarterback Ryan Tannehill kept handing it off on read-option type runs. More than a few times the Patriots looked to be out of position to stop Tannehill had he kept the ball and took off around the edge, but for whatever reason he never really tried to early on in the game. They would have a guy lined up to the outside, but he was there almost strictly to force Tannehill to read it as a give, his depth and width would have still left him susceptible to Tannehill running wide around him. That Tannehill never tried to run allowed almost the whole Patriots front seven to key in on the running back, which is likely why Lamar Miller only ended up with 47 yards on 16 carries. The Seahawks can not afford to let them off the hook that way.
If Wilson can at least keep that defense honest by challenging them to truly play him on the read-option keeper, that will open up big cutback lanes when he does hand the ball off to Lynch. The contain men for the Patriots will no longer be able to get in and help out with bringing down the running back lest he looks up and Wilson is flying down the field unmolested. Up until now I can understand why the Seahawks may have held back on having Wilson run a lot, but with no more games to play this season after Sunday I have a strong feeling they're going to take the bubble wrap off and truly unleash him on that Patriots defense.
This will also apply to when the Seahawks drop back to throw the ball. Look, we all know that Belichick did not bring Darrelle Revis to New England to play zone. The same goes for Brandon Browner. Those guys are there to play tight man-to-man defense. The problem with playing man against a quarterback like Wilson is that you're generally asking those guys to play with their back to the quarterback while in coverage. When Wilson sees all those guys running with their back to him, he's going to make them pay for it by using his legs to move the chains and then some.
Damn trying to fit the ball into a tight window with Revis lurking. To hell with all that!
Wilson can instead get an easy 8-10 yards rushing by taking off up the middle on those plays, which will help keep the chains and clock moving. Wilson scrambling over and over again Sunday may be the key to the Seahawks blowing the game wide open. It's not that I don't believe the Seahawks can win throwing the ball, but why take that chance when their prospects on winning by riding the running game are so much better?
I would feel better about the Patriots being able to limit Wilson's rushing yards if it weren't for the fact that their pass rush has been straight ass the last few weeks. Okay, maybe "straight ass" is a little harsh when talking about their performance against the Colts in the AFC Championship where Rob Ninkovich did get some decent pressure on Andrew Luck. At the end of the day, however, they still could not get Luck on the ground for a sack. Even after Belichick relented and finally started blitzing, Luck was still able to avoid the rush for the most part. For the Patriots to win this game they will need huge contributions by both Ninkovich and defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones and hell, maybe even a third pass rusher. From what I have seen the last few weeks I just don't see them being able to rush Wilson well enough to limit the damage he will do both on the ground and through the air.
Luck's issue in the AFC Championship is he didn't even attempt to make the Patriots pay for their shitty pass rush by running up and down the field on them. Much like with Tannehill, the Patriots offered Luck plenty of opportunities to take off and run -- he just chose not to do so. Both guys seemed way too intent on showing their prowess as a passer instead of taking what the defense offered them. I have complained at times before that Wilson doesn't run nearly as much as he should, but I have a feeling he won't waste those same opportunities when faced with them. One of the keys to the Seahawks' late comeback against the Packers was Wilson finally pulling the read-option fake a few times and getting positive yardage. Those plays also seemed to open things up for Lynch when he did in fact hand the ball off to him on the read-option plays from that point on. I would think that neither he nor the Seahawks' coaching staff would see that as just a coincidence.
You might be wondering why I would trust the Seahawks to stick to the "right" offensive gameplan in the Super Bowl in light of my skepticism over the Patriots sticking with the "right" gameplan as well. Its really simple for me -- the Seahawks are who they are. They don't throw the ball 40 times in a game. No, seriously, go back and look. Wilson did not throw the ball 40 times in a single game all season. Lynch, on the other hand, is generally going to get between 14-21 carries every game. In only seven games did his number of carries fall out of that range all season, including the last two playoff games. In four of those seven games he actually had more than 21 carries.
Put another way, Lynch had at least 14 carries in 83 percent of the games he played this season.
That's what I call consistent.
I will admit that no team, not even the Seahawks, can win off the running game alone, and that's where I think tight end Luke Willson will have a major impact in the passing game. If the Patriots get to match up Collins on Willson on obvious passing downs then I would expect Collins to win quite a few of those encounters. If the Seahawks can get Collins to concentrate on playing the run, however, then I think Willson will have at least two plays of 20 yards or more down field in the passing game off play action. Willson has already shown that he is a hell of an athlete in his own right with pretty decent hands. As much as I like Collins as a player, I can imagine him having steam coming out of his ears by the end of the game trying to figure out whether to play run or pass.
I can also imagine that if I'm wrong about who wins this game it will be Collins, who has an amazing game on defense to lead the Patriots over the Seahawks. Hero or goat, Collins will play a major role in deciding which team comes home with the hardware this Sunday.
If there is one area that makes me nervous about my prediction, it's special teams. Both teams are pretty stout in this area, but the Patriots are damn near flawless. Their kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit 35 of his 37 field goals this year for the best average in the league. The Patriots also have veteran return men on both their punt return and kick off return units which, after injuries, is not something the Seahawks can boast. Hell, we all saw Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin fumble away a kick off return early against the Packers, so I'm not sure how anybody could feel "good" about the Seahawks in the return game right now.
I acknowledge that the Patriots have an edge in this category, I just don't think its going to be enough of one to matter. Two weeks is plenty enough time to get someone ready to fair catch any punts or kneel on any kickoff returns. Steven Hauschka may not have been as proficient as Gostkowski, but he still converted 84 percent of his field goals in the regular season, including 100 percent from inside 40 yard. I also do not foresee the Patriots getting a big return on the Seahawks.
So yes, the edge goes to the Patriots here, but I don't think either team will win or lose the game on special teams.
After taking a close look at both the Patriots and Seahawks and then trying to match them up against each other in my head, I've come to the conclusion that the Seahawks should win their second Super Bowl in a row Sunday, denying Tom Brady his fourth Lombardi yet again. Depending upon the outcome of the game, many of you will either think I was spot on or will be sure I was full of shit all along. I am good with that this time around.
I'm good with it because this time I didn't allow my gut instinct to interfere with my analysis. Everything about this matchup points to a Seahawks' victory as far as I can tell, so I feel extremely comfortable saying so and explaining why I came to that conclusion. That doesn't mean some crazy shit won't happen Sunday that I never could have foreseen. That doesn't even mean the Seahawks will win even if everything goes exactly the way I predicted. Such is the beauty of sports -- anything can happen at any time. Hell, if we all knew for sure who would win, nobody would tune in!
No matter the outcome I just find the Seahawks to be a bad matchup for the Patriots, and all things being even they will come out victorious on Sunday. For those of you pulling for the Patriots, I'm sure you will have plenty to say if I'm wrong and will have every right to talk your shit, but understand there won't be any apology columns after the fact this year. The Seahawks are my pick come hell or high water.