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NFL: Super Sunday Sends Patriots and Seahawks to the Super Bowl

football

So there we have it, the line up for Super Bowl XLIX is set, with the Seattle Seahawks due to take on the New England Patriots on February 1st in the University of Phoenix stadium. After two very interesting (and very different) Conference Championship games were played out on Sunday, there is a truly fascinating clash of superpowers in the Super Bowl, but we should take a few minutes first to reflect back upon a truly stunning Championship Sunday.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks (22-28)

That was arguably the most stunning comeback in the history of American Football. The Seattle Seahawks were down 16-0 at half time, down by 12 points with four minutes to play, had suffered severe injuries to two defensive stars who remained on the field, had turned the ball over five times and had only scored off the back of a fake field goal touchdown pass. And they won the game. In fact, thanks to Russell Wilson’s Hail Mary that Luke Wilson came down with on a two point conversion, they led by three points with just seconds remaining. In getting to that point, Seattle got their old groove going. Marshawn Lynch ran like an unstoppable machine in the second half of a monster day when he notched 157 yards on the ground, 26 through the air and probably still left a play or two behind him. Russell Wilson shook off his worst ever NFL performance of four interceptions to show composure and great quick decision making to open up running options. And the defensive front battered Eddie Lacy into the backfield twice when he tried to run out the clock. They won on special teams with a recovered onside kick to go along with the fake field goal, and they simply went from zero to a hundred when the game was (if only in their minds) still on the line, and emerged victorious.

The real key was the phenomenal defensive effort to limit three turnovers to six points in the first half, and never really being put out of sight on the scoreboard. The mental fortitude applied throughout this game was remarkable, with composure and coolness on display from Seahawks throughout, and it eventually won the day for this extraordinary team. They shrugged off a turgid first half display and made the loudest possible statement about how impressive the team is. Jermaine Kearse’s 35-yard touchdown reception to win the game in overtime was actually his only catch of the game, in a day when the receivers struggled for separation, but they hung tough until the very end, and are rewarded with a second-successive Super Bowl appearance.

This game will evoke painful memories for all concerned with the Green Bay Packers for the rest of their days. The underdogs had thrown down the gauntlet early to Seattle, forcing their mistakes and putting a big lead on the board. But, upon reflection, it was a tame gauntlet to begin with. The Packers settled for field goal tries on fourth-and-one from the one yard line twice in the first ten minutes, when the Packers had a real chance to put some distance between them and the home team on the scoreboard. But still, the Packers had a 16 point lead at half time and a 12 point lead with four minutes left, and everyone involved has to take a portion of the blame for letting that slip.

Considering Aaron Rodgers’ two interceptions both came from within field-goal range, it is  clear that he left crucial points out on the field, which would have made a serious difference come the end. A defense that surrendered over six yards per carry to Marshawn Lynch on the day must ask itself a number of questions, as must Ha Ha Clinton Dix who, despite picking Russell Wilson off twice, missed an opportunity for a third interception and failed to attack a hopeful, lofted pass towards Luke Wilson on the two point conversion that turned out to be so crucial. Brandon Bostick will come under heavy fire for failing to recover the onside kick attempt, but frankly if those plays were always recovered with ease by the receiving team, then no one would ever try them. And yes, Mike McCarthy has a number of questions to answer, and this game will go down as the biggest throwaway in his tenured career as Green Bay’s head coach, but it is hard to blame him for elementary mistakes by his players. It will be hard for them to watch the Super Bowl, knowing they were all but there with so little time left.

 

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (7-45)

The New England Patriots surgically dissected the young pretenders in this one, picking apart a team that overachieved getting this far, and exposed them in prime time. The Patriots statistics speak to a frightening level of precision and efficiency, completing 12 of 18 third down attempts, 2 of 2 fourth down attempts and controlling possession for almost 38 minutes, severely limiting the opposition’s opportunities. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are known for their ability to pick on a team’s weak spots, and they hammered that point home here. Using LeGarrette Blount as a Marshawn Lynch-esque power back, the Patriots steamrollered the defensive front, forcing extra bodies dedicated to the run game, and opening things up for the now fabled Brady to Julian Edelman connection. Blount took 30 receptions for 148 yards, while Edelman had 9 receptions for 98 yards. Those two alone generated significantly more offense than the whole opposition team could muster. Brady led his team to a staggering four straight touchdown drives in the second half, and that was it.

Defensively, Belichick held down the dynamic TY Hilton not with Darrell Revis, but by sticking Kyle Arrington on him throughout. This freed up Revis to cover the array of different receivers that were put forward, while Brandon Browner picked up Coby Fleener for the evening. Browner significantly limited Andrew Luck’s safety blanket in Fleener, and the dump routes were taken away by the excellent linebacking core of Jamie Collins, Donta Hightower and Chandler Jones, with Rob Ninkovich making a huge nuisance of himself on the perimeter.  This is an outstanding defense, the best one Tom Brady has been able to call upon since his last Super Bowl win, and it is no coincidence that the combination of Hall of Fame coach and quarterback and dominant defense has brought them to another Super Bowl.

The Indianapolis Colts were on the cusp of being in the game at half time, having seen D’Qwell Jackson pick off Brady and seeing Andrew Luck lead a touchdown drive. The Colts wound up 17-7 down at the half, despite having been clearly second best. They were still in it though, and must have felt ok. And then Brady hit them with four touchdown drives in his first four second half possessions. And those are the levels that teams have to be able to play at to make it to the Super Bowl. There were many tough lessons learned by the Colts on this night, and perhaps they will come back all the stronger for it. But it was another night of struggles for Andrew Luck when facing Bill Belichick’s team, as he completed just 12/33 for 126 yards and two interceptions. With TY Hilton and Coby Fleener marginalised and the shorter routes taken away, Luck had few places to throw the ball for positive yardage. Add in Josh Cribbs’ lost punt catch and they easily lost the turnover battle, which is something you can’t do on the road in New England in the playoffs.

The Colts have some building blocks in place, most notably in their young quarterback and a couple of talented receivers. But they do not possess a Championship calibre roster yet. Losing Robert Mathis was huge, but they need more pass rush to play the type of game Chuck Pagano wants. The defensive line could certainly benefit from a serious run-stuffing presence. Offensively, a running back or three is an absolute must, as the Trent Richardson experiment continues to bomb badly. The Colts are still far from the elite, but a crushing loss like this will at least have shown them where the bar stands right now, and what they need to do to get to that level.

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