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Super Bowl XLIX: Superpowers Collide As Patriots Meet Seahawks

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Super Bowl XLIX is finally upon us, with the Seattle Seahawks set to take on the New England Patriots on Sunday night in the University of Phoenix stadium.

In so many ways, this feels like a clash of the old masters against the new breed, but Seattle are the reigning Super Bowl champions, so they cannot be dismissed lightly. Vegas has made them favourites for this game, and given how few Super Bowl champions have even made it back to the playoffs the following season, the phenomenal effort put in by the Seahawks needs to be acknowledged. This is no ordinary team, and considering they have tied their best players down to long term contracts, we could well be seeing them at this time of year for the foreseeable future.

The New England Patriots come into this game having been dogged by questions regarding “deflategate”, the alleged tampering of footballs after the referee’s had inspected them ahead of their AFC Championship win against the Indianapolis Colts. The controversy has taken over all media channels and hounded the Patriots in their run up to the game. New England are looking to climb to the NFL’s summit for the first time in ten seasons, and they couldn’t be faced with a stiffer challenge to do so. But the controversy is sure to have brought this group even closer together, and the siege mentality may well work to their advantage come game time.

There is a perception that this ferocious Seattle defense has a blindspot when it comes to defending tight ends. It is espoused before almost any game where the opposition boasts an above average receiver at the tight end position. Exhibit A has often been how Antonio Gates, the stalwart of the San Diego Chargers, ripped Seattle’s Legion of Boom for three touchdowns in their shock defeat earlier in the season. But frankly, this is an entirely different team now. The Seahawks had injuries in the early part of the season, which unsurprisingly coincided with their mid-season slump. When they got Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas back fully fit, the ‘Hawks began rolling off the wins in quick succession. In fact, since the Week Ten win over the New York Giants, Seattle has conceded just one touchdown to a tight end, when Zach Ertz scored as Seattle beat the Philadelphia Eagles. They have lost only once during that run.

Then again, they are going to go mano a mano against the very best tight end in the NFL today. Rob Gronkowski may have his issues with injury, but there can be no doubt that he is as good as it gets as an option at tight end. Unusually for the modern player, Gronk can block as well as make gobsmacking catches, and his return had a lot to do with New England’s own mid-season resurgence. Gronkowski will undoubtedly be picked out for special attention from the formidable defense, who know that he is both the Patriots best receiver and Tom Brady’s go-to guy. Brady’s interception against the Colts (which brought about the deflategate investigations) came as he tried to force the ball to Gronk, who had been very quiet in the first half. It is this kind of mistake that the veteran quarterback simply can’t afford to make on Super Bowl Sunday. But it raises a very important question: are New England’s other receivers good enough to exploit the extra room they get if Seattle goes all out after Gronk? Julian Edelman is a fine player, who has had a great season. But outside of him, the likes of Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell and Shane Vereen will have to win one on one match-ups to move the chains. And you had best believe they will get a fight in doing so.

If the Patriots can’t make plays in space in the middle of the field, their favourite way to make ground in the  passing game all season long, then the need for a strong performance on the ground will intensify. No New England runner has put up huge yardage over the course of the season, but then a lot of this is down to Bill Belichick’s game planning, where he has consistently changed the feature back to expose specific weaknesses in the opposing defense, to great success. Jonas Gray ran for over 200 yards versus the Indianapolis Colts in the regular season, while LeGarrette Blount has steamrollered teams since his mid-season arrival. Shane Vereen’s pass-catching ability has been used to great effect against strong defensive lines, and as such we may expect to see a lot of him spread out wide on Sunday.

The Patriots would obviously like a big day from Blount, but he may well feel like he’s running into a brick wall all day. A defensive line featuring Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Kevin Williams is tough enough, but being backed up by great linebackers in Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright and Bruce Irvin makes every yard won on the ground earned. The Patriots have had issues going against teams who can generate pressure up front, with the re-jigged offensive line only just getting by in the games against the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets. Bennett and Avril are returning to the Super Bowl, where last season they gave a future Hall of Fame quarterback who was getting up there in years one of the worst experiences he had ever had in football. Tom Brady’s new found mobility will likely be put to the test more than once. Brady has also become an expert at getting the ball out of his hands quickly, but that might be tough with the physical pressure receivers are met with on the line.

All the match-ups will be fascinating, but perhaps the battle on the other side of the ball will be the most interesting. Russell Wilson has thrived as a quarterback in Seattle, winning the most games of any quarterback in NFL history after three years. A big reason for this has been his unparalleled ability to throw on the run, where he can dodge tacklers and still keep his eyes downfield in search of a possible completion. With receivers in Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse who are capable of coming off their coverage to give him options, it makes the Seahawks passing game very dangerous. They are easily the two most underrated receivers in the game, but mostly because of the farcical notion that the Seahawks lack playmakers out wide. They will of course lean heavily on Marshawn Lynch, in the hopes that Beast Mode will kick into gear once more and lead the way, opening up room for the other players on offense. Very few defenses have ever truly shut him down for sixty minutes.

Yet it could well be that it is the re-establishing of a top tier defense that has returned New England to the Super Bowl. Their incredible run of three Super Bowl wins in four years was made possible by a star-studded defensive unit that gave them a lot of chances to win games. Now, with the likes of Devin McCourty, Don’t’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jamie Collins contributing at a high level alongside the veteran Vince Wilfork and premium free agent acquisition Darrell Revis, the Patriots rightly fear no offense. While they don’t typically generate a lot of pressure, they play smart football. Ninkovich, in particular, is very adept at getting his hands up on the outside, keeping his containment assignments and making small but crucial interventions. If they can chase the quarterback in disciplined fashion and keep Wilson bottled up in the pocket, then the rallying linebackers of Jones and Collins can close the net.

This should be a far closer game than the last Super Bowl we saw. The savvy Patriots are too clever in gameplanning and too talented to be simply blown out of the water by the Seattle Seahawks. But a lot of what they like to do offensively does play into the hands of this historically great defensive unit. It will likely be a classic case of turnovers deciding the ball game, although the Seahawks certainly proved they are never out of it following their heroic comeback against the Green Bay Packers. No matter what the result, we are sure to be treated to an exciting finale to another fantastic year of NFL action.

Verdict: Seattle

See EA Sport’s simulated prediction of the big game here.

Image courtesy of NFL.com

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