Beyond the endless noise that is the week before the Super Bowl, beyond the controversies over whether or not one team knowingly deflated balls, and beyond the podium antics of one star running back is one of the most intriguing and captivating match-ups in recent Super Bowl history.
The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks face off to decide who is the best, this Sunday, 6:30 p.m. on NBC. The No. 1 seed Patriots are quarterbacked by veteran Tom Brady and coached by Bill Belichick, and each will be making their sixth Super Bowl appearance.
Brady has always been excellent in his Super Bowl appearances, throwing nine touchdowns to just two interceptions and sporting a 93.8 quarterback rating. When asked about Brady by the Washington Post, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor praised the quarterback briefly before accepting the challenge of facing him.
“We embrace the challenge because in order to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Chancellor said. “We embrace those challenges with great competitors.”
Brady had another terrific season, making the most of an offense that keyed in on the opposition’s defensive weaknesses. The Patriots were capable of running the ball effectively this season, and the team would completely alter strategy from week to week depending on the opponent. In Week 11, against the Indianapolis Colts, Brady handed the ball off to Jonas Gray and the cast of Patriots running backs 44 times to the tune of 246 yards. The following week against the Detroit Lions, Brady threw the ball 53 times for 349 yards. Both games resulted in more than 20-point margins of victory.
Unlike past years, this year’s Patriots team has an impressive defensive to go along with their perennially great offense. For the first time in five years, New England is top 12 in both offensive and defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), which FootballOutsiders.com uses to measure value above the average team. Like their previous Super Bowl winning teams, this year’s Patriots could theoretically withstand a slow offensive start with a staunch defensive unit.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks have been the model of defensive efficiency. Seattle finished third in rushing yards allowed and first in passing on the strength of the “Legion of Boom,” a playmaking secondary which features cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, and safeties Earl Thomas III and Kam Chancellor. Chancellor, who has become a household name this season, is specifically on New England’s radar, as told to NFL.com.
"You better account for him,” said Patriots Offensive Line Coach Dave DeGuelielmo. “I'm lucky I work with very smart people. Honestly. Receivers coach, tight ends coach, quarterbacks coach -- they all work with the understanding that you have to handle a hard-hitting safety like he is. The bottom line is, he's the best at what he does."
The Seattle unit has combined for 32 pass defenses, 8 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries this year. Advanced stats gathered by Football Outsiders says the Legion is especially dominant against wide receivers, ranked fourth, sixth, and fourth by efficiency against the opposition’s first, second and slot receivers, respectively.
The Seahawks secondary has struggled against tight ends however, giving up 6.4 passes and 41.4 yards per game on average, in addition to 11 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Seattle, they will be matching up against the league’s best in New England's Rob Gronkowski, who caught 82 balls for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns this year. Gronk also ranked first by a significant margin in Defense-adjusted Yards above Replacement (DYAR), a Football Outsiders statistic that measures the value of the performance of the tight end on plays where the tight end caught the ball. By the looks of it, Seattle may be in for a tough time trying to slow down Gronkowski.
Not so fast, though. Grantland's Bill Barnwell observes that, while Seattle gave up 11 touchdowns to tight ends this year, 10 came in their first 10 games. In their next eight, including the playoffs, the Seahawks gave up only one, with their improved play coinciding with the return of inside linebacker Bobby Wagner. While Gronkowski will no doubt be a handful, Seattle is better equipped to handle him with Wagner in the line-up.
Super Bowl XLIX has all the making of a close game that could turn out to be a classic. While Seattle’s defensive front has been suffocating for more than two years, Touchdown Tom has the pedigree and the weapons to keep the Legion of Boom on its heels. The difference maker might be Seattle QB Russell Wilson, who was woeful in the Conference Championship, but still led his team to victory. If Wilson is efficient and can create some big plays, Seattle may eke out the victory. But, if he struggles, Brady and Belichick will once against hoist the ultimate NFL prize.
Follow Jake Gofman on Twitter at @jakegofman.