Face to face
▪ Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor: Gronkowski, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound physical mismatch for most defenders, has been an unstoppable force this season, catching 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 TDs in the regular season plus 10 catches for 136 yards and two TDs in two playoff games. He is one of two tight ends in NFL history with two 1,000-yard and two 10-plus TD seasons. Chancellor, a rugged 6-3, 232, has no fear in defending receivers. Chancellor received AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors when he limited Denver’s Julius Thomas to three catches for 17 yards, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass in a win over the Broncos. Chancellor has an interception in three of the last four postseason games, including a 90-yard TD return against Carolina.
▪ Patriots WR Julian Edelman vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman: Edelman led the Patriots with 92 receptions in 2014, and during the last two seasons, his 197 catches rank third in the NFL behind Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (239) and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (203). He’s been even better in the postseason, with 17 receptions for 172 yards in two games. Edelman often lines up in the slot, but Sherman, the loquacious shutdown corner, takes on the opposition’s best receiver — and he’ll find Edelman. Since 2011, Sherman leads the NFL in interceptions with 24 and ranks second with 68 passes defensed. He also has an interception in each postseason game this year.
▪ Patriots ILB Jamie Collins vs. Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch: Collins, in just his second season, has emerged as a force in the middle of the New England defense after taking over for injured Jerod Mayo in each of the last two years. Collins led the Patriots with 109 tackles this season, plus 11 in the postseason win over Baltimore. Stopping Lynch will be the key to the game for the Patriots because his tough inside running sets up the passing game. Lynch ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,306 yards and led the league with 17 touchdowns (four were receptions). He ran for 157 yards in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, including a 24-yard TD with 1:25 left to play.
▪ Patriots ILB Dont’a Hightower vs. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson: Hightower may draw the unenviable task of spying Wilson, who is as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm. Wilson runs the read option with Lynch, and Hightower needs to keep containment or the multitalented Wilson is capable of picking up yards rushing. Wilson led lNFL quarterbacks in rushing with a career-best 849 yards, the fifth-most in NFL history by a quarterback and most since Atlanta’s Michael Vick ran for an NFL-record 1,039 yards in 2006. Hightower ranked second on the Patriots in tackles (92) and sacks (six).
▪ Seahawks FS Earl Thomas vs Patriots QB Tom Brady: Thomas is the quarterback of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary and was selected to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. Thomas had just one interception this season, but he directs coverage and will be the last line of defense against Brady, who can carve up a defense with a fully inflated or deflated football. Brady, playing in his record sixth Super Bowl, has thrown the most postseason TD passes (49) and is the all-time leader in Super Bowl completions (127) and yards (1,277).
Five things to watch
▪ Comeback kids: Tom Brady has engineered 46 career game-winning performances in leading his team to victory from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. Two of those comebacks came in the 2014 regular season in wins at San Diego and the New York Jets and another in the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore. In six of the comebacks, Brady threw a touchdown pass in the final minute of the game. Russell Wilson has executed 15 fourth-quarter or overtime comeback victories in 55 career games, which is the most in the NFL since 2012, and includes a win over New England in 2012. None was bigger than his 35-yard strike to Jermaine Kearse in overtime against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Wilson has had five game-winning drives this season.
▪ Trick plays: The Patriots and Seahawks both went deep into the playbooks during their postseason run. New England hit the Baltimore Ravens with a double pass from Brady to Julian Edelman, who threw 51 yards downfield for a TD to Danny Amendola, and Brady threw a tackle-eligible TD to Nate Solder against Indianapolis. Seahawks holder Jon Ryan threw a 19-yard TD pass to tackle Garry Gilliam on a fake field goal against Green Bay.
▪ Block party: The Patriots blocked five kicks — four field goals and a punt — in 2014, one shy of the team record of six in 1975. Five different Patriots blocked the kicks, including a blocked field goal by Chandler Jones, who returned it 58 yards for a TD at Minnesota; and a field goal blocked by Jamie Collins that was returned 62 yards for a TD by Kyle Arrington against Miami. Since 2010, the Seahawks rank second in the NFL with 15 blocked kicks, including two this season. The Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin blocked a punt that Mike Morgan recovered and returned 25 yards for a TD against Dallas; and DeShawn Shead blocked a punt against Arizona. And did you see how close Kam Chancellor came to blocking a field goal by leaping over the line of scrimmage against Carolina?
▪ Halftime help: The Patriots were the most successful team in the NFL in the final 2 minutes of the first half. New England scored in the final 2 minutes of the first half in 10 of 16 regular-season games, including four field goals as time expired. In all, the Patriots scored 66 points in the final 2 minutes of the first half — eight field goals by Stephen Gostkowski, three TD passes by Brady, a TD run by Brandon LaFell, a fumble return by LB Rob Ninkovich and the return of a blocked field goal by Chandler Jones.
▪ Seattle’s offensive explosion: The Seahawks call them Explosive Plays — runs of 12-plus yards and completions of 16-plus yards that enable the Seahawks to move the chains and get in scoring position. Seattle has accumulated a league-leading 135 combined such plays, with 74 passes of 16 or more yards and a league-leading 61 rushes of 12 or more yards. In the postseason, the Seahawks rank first in Explosive Plays with 22 — nine rushes of 12-plus yards and 13 passes of 16-plus.
The specter of Deflategate hung over the Patriots all week, and it won’t disappear until after the NFL reveals its findings sometime in the coming weeks or even months. How the Patriots deal with the distraction could determine the outcome of this game. Will they use it as a rallying cry and want to prove they don’t have to resort to chicanery to win? Or has it disrupted their preparation and undermined the momentum they built in the playoffs?
Three reasons the Patriots will win
▪ The Patriots have so many ways to move the ball on offense. Brady can choose between Gronkowski, Edelman, Amendola and LaFell in the passing game and can pound the ball, deflated or not, with a power runner in LeGarrette Blount and shiftier Shane Vereen.
▪ The Patriots defense alters its look from week to week depending on the opponent, and few coaches are better than Bill Belichick at figuring ways to find weaknesses in opponents’ offenses.
▪ This is New England’s sixth trip to the Super Bowl in the last 14 seasons, and after winning three times, the Patriots have suffered two excruciating losses to the New York Giants. Belichick and Brady aren’t going to let this opportunity get away.
Three reasons the Seahawks will win
▪ In most big games, good defense prevails over good offenses. Look how Seattle destroyed Denver last year. Seattle’s defense is so quick and its players are so long-limbed, it looks like it has 15 players on the field.
▪ Lynch wears down defenses. Green Bay bottled him up for just 37 yards in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, but even when the Seahawks trailed by two touchdowns in the second half, they gave the ball to Beast Mode, who rushed for 120 in the second half.
▪ There’s a karma about Wilson that defies description. He’s bidding to become the first quarterback to win two Super Bowls in his first three years. Nothing gets him down. Not four interceptions. Not a 16-0 deficit. Not the New England Patriots, who he beat as a rookie.