A pivotal NFC vs AFC contest is set to unfold on Sunday Night Football in Week 10. Division leaders Seattle (5-2-1) and New England (7-1) face off against one another for the first time since Superbowl XLIX in which Malcolm Butler made a spectacular defensive play to save the game for the Patriots.
While the teams have changed since then, the core players, and their leadership, remains the same. In a season bereft of quality games, this Sunday's matchup portends of one of the best.
The Seahawks are coming off a close, if not controversial, Monday Night Football victory against Buffalo and will be on short rest for the game. Seattle is once again atop the NFL in key defensive metrics and are winning games despite some poor showings from their offense. The team is sixth in Defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), a Football Outsiders stat which measures the effectiveness of a defense compared to league average at stopping scoring and the accumulation of yards, adjusted for situation and opponent.
Broken down further, Seattle’s DVOA strength comes from their front-line run defense. The Seahawks rank third in defensive rush DVOA even though the team is middle of the league in rush yards allowed per game and rush yards per attempt. Seattle has a knack for stopping opponent running games early forcing team to throw, something DVOA captures that the raw numbers miss.
Offensively, the Seahawks have struggled to produce at 2015 levels with their shaky O-line. QB Russell Wilson has been efficient, if unspectacular, following his previous year’s campaign. The fifth-year quarterback has thrown for 243.3 yards per game with 7 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. Offensive line aside, Wilson has seen a dip in effectiveness and productivity due to various injuries that have limited his mobility. His 28 carries for 58 yards through nine weeks is alarming given he ran for 553 yards last season. Still, Wilson has been able to get it done without his legs, and it will be interesting to see the Seattle game plan for a cerebral New England defense.
In New England, it has been smooth sailing so far for the Patriots who are leading the AFC East comfortably. The team has not lost since the return of Touchdown Tom Brady, who is garnering MVP support in spite of missing the first four games of the season. The veteran All-pro is throwing for 329.8 yards per game and has 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. He leads the league in too many stats to name, including the efficiency metrics which take into account more than just the raw numbers. Take, for instance, his league leading adjusted completion percentage of 87.4 percent, per Pro Football Focus. Of his 36 total incompletions this year, 11 were intentional and 6 were dropped, leaving him with only 19 true incompletions, or less than 5 per game.
And when Brady plays, tight end Rob Gronkowski is typically somewhere nearby destroying opposingt defenses. Gronk returned to play in full when Brady’s suspension ended and he has put up gaudy numbers in just four games: 21 catches for 473 yards and 3 touchdowns. Look for Gronk to be a major player running through the heart of the Seattle defense.This should be a closely contested game despite what NFL analysts say, and may come down to who is and is not playing. We know Michael Bennett will not be with Seattle to face off against his brother. The Seahawks' defensive end is a game changer, and Brady acknowledged this in his press conference this week.
"If he's not the best defensive player in the league, I don't know who is," Brady said, according to FieldGulls.com. "He's right up there at the top...."
Missing Bennett hurts Seattle, but they do have arguably the best 4-3 defensive end in football right now in Clint Avril. Avril leads all defensive ends in combined sacks and QB hits with 18, and in his last five games has 9 sacks, 5 QB hits and 18 hurries. Whomever gets the better of the matchup between Avril and Marcus Cannon of the Patriots will go a ways in determining the outcome.
Everything seems to be in New England’s favor going into this game. The Patriots are red hot with Tom Brady at QB, the defense is improving steadily, and the offense welcomes the return of dynamic running back Dion Lewis. Add to this that Bill Belichick is 12-4 following byes and the Patriots may be in line for their fifth straight victory this Sunday Night.