Super Bowl XLIX Preview

Five Quick Hits

* We all know the importance of a good quarterback, but how about a great cornerback? We'll get a Super Bowl matchup of Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis, the best CBs of 2014, and the best of this generation.

* Jermaine Kearse, who caught the game-winning touchdown for Seattle, was also targeted on all four of Russell Wilson's interceptions.

* Speaking of Wilson's interceptions, the first two were both made by Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, both returned over 25 yards, and both returns partially neutralized by 15-yard penalties on Green Bay.

* Congratulations to this year's finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: Anquan Boldin, Thomas Davis, and Aaron Rodgers. This is the second year in a row Davis has been a Finalist. Charles Tillman won last season.

* I'm sure it was an accident, but Terry Bradshaw dissed Walter Jones and Cortez Kennedy when he called Steve Largent the Seahawks' only Hall of Famer.

Championship Roundups

Seattle Seahawks 28, Green Bay Packers 22 (OT)

The opposite of the late game, with a riveting fourth quarter that was probably the highlight of the postseason. If you're any kind of football fan (other than a Packer Backer), you've got to love that frantic finish. After the teams combined for 23 points in the first three quarters, they scored another 27 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Troy Aikman called it "as improbable of a win as I've ever witnessed."

There are 100 things that could have gone differently and Green Bay would have won, but the narrative has to be the Packers' failure to capitalize on opportunities, and in particular the conservative coaching of Mike McCarthy. The Packers finished this game with five field goals and one touchdown. The Packers were substantial underdogs, on the road against the best team in the NFL. From that context, you've simply got to take chances, and McCarthy did the opposite. Michael Strahan chided the strategy on the postgame show: "You always play to win, don't play not to lose." McCarthy played not to lose, with predictable results.

On back-to-back drives in the first quarter, McCarthy passed up 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line to attempt 18-yard field goals. Both tries were successful, but that exceptional field position yielded only 6 points. Let's say the Packers go for it, both times. They score a TD the first time and get stuffed the next. Now they have 7 points (instead of 6) and they've pinned the Seahawks at their own 1-yard line, instead of the 20 or so. That's a much better result. After the second field goal, Aikman groaned, "Packer fans are cringing right now." Against a great team like Seattle, you have to make the most of opportunities — and field goals don't count.

Contrast McCarthy's timidity with the boldness that led to Seattle's first touchdown, a fake field goal on 4th-and-10. The losing team tried to play it safe, nothing risky, while the winning team had a fake field goal, an onside kick, and a two-point conversion. The idea that conservative, take-no-chances coaching is a winning strategy against good teams has been so thoroughly debunked, it's infuriating that coaches still put it into practice.

Everything that could be expected to go Green Bay's way did so. The Seahawks had turnovers, penalties, injuries to star players. The Packers failed to turn those opportunities into a substantial lead. Early in the second quarter, Joe Buck marveled that the Packers were "winning every phase of this game so far." A partial summary of Green Bay's dominance:

* At the end of the first quarter, the Packers had more possessions (4) than the Seahawks had yards (3).

* Halfway through the second quarter, Green Bay had more points (16) than Seattle had yards (11).

* Russell Wilson began the game 0-for-6, and at halftime, he was 2/9 for 12 yards, with 3 interceptions, a passer rating of 0.0, and 2 sacks. Halfway through the game, that's more interceptions than completions. His first completion took more than 26 minutes. Holy smokes.

* Seattle's first half possessions yielded four turnovers and two three-and-outs.

* All-pro safety Earl Thomas missed most of the second quarter and played the second half with a dislocated shoulder. All-pro cornerback Richard Sherman played the fourth quarter with one arm.

* The Seahawks had seven pre-snap penalties, though two of them were declined. That's not supposed to happen at home.

On a day when the Seahawks played undisciplined, when their two biggest defensive stars got injured, when Russell Wilson had perhaps his worst day as a pro, on a day when Seattle committed 5 turnovers, the Packers scored one touchdown and kicked five field goals, and it wasn't enough.

New England Patriots 45, Indianapolis Colts 7

The first half was close, if not exactly competitive. The Patriots were missing a couple of starters, Rob Gronkowski was held without a catch, and Tom Brady threw an interception. The second half was a runaway for New England.

This game was a mismatch. The Patriots were the much better team, they're a bad matchup for the Colts, and Indianapolis was not up to the moment. Maybe it was the context of an AFC Championship Game, or maybe it was heavy rain in New England in January. The Colts were never likely to win, but they didn't play as well as they could have or should have.

What I found most remarkable was the Colts' continued inability to stop New England's run game. When these teams met in last year's divisional playoff, LeGarrette Blount rushed for 166 yards and 4 TDs. When they met in Week 11, Jonas Gray rushed for 199 yards and 4 TDs. And on Sunday, Blount rushed for 148 yards and 3 TDs. The Colts had below-average run defense this season, but slightly below-average, and the Patriots just destroyed them. It didn't look like scheme, it just looked like New England physically dominated at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots used funky formations and extra linemen — which I guess is scheme, though it went beyond that — and once Blount got to the second level nobody could tackle him, or at least not without him falling forward for an extra few yards.

I wrote last week, "What the Colts really need is a stellar offensive performance." The Patriots were bound to put up points one way or another, but the Colts had a chance in a shootout. Instead, they finished with just 209 yards of offense. Andrew Luck went 12/33 for 126 yards and 2 picks, a career-low 23.0 passer rating.

Luck wasn't the only quarterback to struggle this weekend. Russell Wilson went 14/29 with 4 INT and a 44.3 rating, while Aaron Rodgers had 178 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, and a 55.8 rating. But in four career games vs. New England, Luck is now 82-of-163 (50.4%) for 1,094 yards, 6 TDs, 10 INT, and a 58.7 passer rating. Yikes. Luck now has 12 interceptions in 6 playoff appearances. It wasn't the difference in Sunday's 38-point blowout, but he's got to take better care of the ball.

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks
Glendale, Arizona
February 1, 2015

For the second year in a row, we get the best possible matchup: the top seed in the AFC versus the top seed in the NFC. This is the game I wanted to see three weeks ago, and that's even more true after New England looked so strong in the AFC Championship Game.

It's a matchup of Super Bowl-winning head coaches and quarterbacks, an old dynasty versus a potential new dynasty, a great offensive team against the league's best defense ... lots of intriguing elements even beyond that we've got the two best teams in the NFL. So what should we expect two weeks from now?


The Patriots' greatest strength is their versatility. They can certainly win through the air with Tom Brady, but they've also proven that they're willing and able to win on the ground, which is probably the better plan against Seattle. The Seahawks have a great run defense (3rd in yards, 2nd in average), but you'll take your chances against it if that means not throwing against the top-ranked pass defense in the league. What may work to New England's advantage is its ability to both run and pass from effectively from the same formations.

If I were Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn, I'd work really, really hard on the unusual formations the Patriots have shown the last two weeks, with running backs and tight ends reporting as ineligible receivers and tackles reporting eligible. Defensive confusion on even one of those plays could be the difference in a competitive game, if it yields a big play or a critical first-down conversion. Conversely, if Seattle can take advantage of a four-man offensive line to hit Brady, New England's strength could quickly become a liability. The Seahawks should also prepare for a trick play like the pass by Julian Edelman in the divisional round.

The wild card is health. Richard Sherman injured his elbow against Green Bay, and Earl Thomas dislocated a shoulder. Both expect to play in the Super Bowl, and I'd be shocked if they didn't. But if one or both are noticeably off, Brady will take advantage.

Seattle allowed only 6.5 points per game over the final six weeks of the regular season, but gave up 17 to Carolina — their most since November 16 — and 22 to Green Bay. It's possible the Seahawks peaked too early.


The plan against Seattle is simple, in theory: contain Marshawn Lynch and keep Russell Wilson in the pocket. All the Seahawks will tell you their receivers are underrated, but those guys don't scare you. Lynch and Wilson scare you.

The Seahawks need to keep Lynch involved. It's just a matter of time until he breaks one of those Beast Mode runs, and while they seem to happen more often in the second half, Lynch should touch the ball on every offensive series. Wilson's versatility creates problems for opponents. He's a dangerous passer, a dynamic runner, and he keeps his eyes downfield when he's on the move, so you can never abandon either responsibility. Wilson didn't move around much against Green Bay, and that needs to change in the Super Bowl. Whether it's zone read or scrambles and bootlegs, the Seattle offense is most dangerous when Wilson is mobile.

Six years ago, the Patriots got embarrassed by Miami's wildcat offense. The Seahawks can do the same thing, except that Wilson throws a lot better than Ronnie Brown. However, the Seahawks do make mistakes. Wilson committed 4 turnovers against Green Bay, and the Patriots' defense is probably a little better than the Packers' defense. Wilson doesn't really seem to get flustered, but if the Patriots can put him under pressure or confuse him, they could probably force a couple of turnovers.

Seattle is not an optimal matchup for the Patriots, because the Seahawks' strengths play away from Darrelle Revis. New England doesn't win this game by shutting down Doug Baldwin. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, arises from the matchup between Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner and his former team. If it's an advantage one way or the other, I might lean toward Seattle, who knows Browner's strengths and weaknesses and might be able to exploit something.


I don't see an obvious advantage here. Both teams have good kickers, New England's Stephen Gostkowski probably a little better. Both have decent punters, Seattle's Jon Ryan probably a little better. The Patriots have a more explosive return game, and special teams ace Matthew Slater on the coverage squad, so I guess that's an edge for New England. I don't foresee this game turning on special teams, but if it does, I'd bet on either a fumble, or a big return by Julian Edelman.


The Patriots dominated the AFC Championship Game, while the Seahawks struggled badly against the Packers and were lucky to advance. It's wise not to read too much into that. The same thing happened last year: the Broncos coasted in the AFC Championship Game, while the Seahawks played a tough game against the 49ers. Let's also keep in mind that the Packers are probably a tougher matchup than the Colts were.

If the Patriots win, it will be with dynamic offense that keeps the Seahawks off-balance. I wouldn't look for big plays so much as a relentless up-tempo attack, grinding out first downs. We saw on Sunday that New England is happy to run the QB sneak, even on second down: it's all about extending drives. I'd also look for more of Josh McDaniels' unusual formations, mixing eligible and ineligible receivers to put the defense off-balance. Depending on the status of Sherman and Thomas, the Patriots could take advantage of openings in the secondary. Defensively, the Pats win by preventing long runs and by generating turnovers. If Lynch never breaks one of his signature runs, and Wilson isn't a difference-maker running the football, the Seahawks will struggle to score points, and field position is just critical against the Seattle defense, so turnovers are critical.

If the Seahawks win, look first and foremost for big plays from their defense. If they're putting pressure on Brady, or they frustrate him with a couple early turnovers, this game could get ugly. The Seahawks want to limit New England's ground game and take away Rob Gronkowksi. The rest of the offense doesn't scare you. Offensively, Seattle wants to get Lynch going. The priority with Wilson is limiting turnovers. If he plays a clean game and Lynch rushes for 100 yards, the Seahawks will win.

This is a great matchup, and that makes it tough to predict. The initial betting line is pick 'em, which is unusual, and reflects the extremely close nature of the matchup. Richard Sherman will have an MRI on elbow today. That's the wild card that worries me, the health of Earl Thomas and Sherman. Subtract (or badly diminish) one or two of the best players on that team, and the Patriots become obvious favorites. But I bet against Seattle last year, and the team is just so resilient, I can't do it again. The Seahawks win, 24-20. Defense controls the game, but there's no single star, so Marshawn Lynch wins Super Bowl MVP (and reporters cringe).

Bonus prediction: Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz both doing the Super Bowl halftime show is worse than either one doing the show individually.

Comments and Conversation

January 20, 2015


I was a little surprised when Terry Bradshaw claimed that Steve Largent was the only Seahawks hall-of-famer. Then I realized that, despite his claims of being a genius, he’s not that intelligent without cue cards. He also always dismisses the Seahawks.

January 20, 2015


It’s a shame that Terry Bradshaw failed to acknowledge the Seattle Seahawks that are in the NFL Hall of Fame. this will go down as just one more slam to Seahawk fans and players who just can not get any respect. Not even from a fellow HoF member who probably knows all of the Steeler HoF members by heart. What is wrong with this guy! Even if this was scripted it was a slap in the face that came at a time that should have been a moment of team pride for Seattle and the team. It is amazing how only a few words can put a damper on the mood.
Best wishes from Seattle, Alaska.

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