Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., is 10 days away, but the national media and major newspapers are already gearing up. Stories are being churned out daily.
Some are looking ahead to the big game, including some early predictions. A few are still reprising the Seahawks’ unforgettable comeback against the Green Bay Packers. And, of course, a ton are digging into the Patriots’ DeflateGate controversy.
Here’s a roundup of some of the media buzz surrounding Super Bowl XVIX.
Seattle’s comeback victory over Green Bay on Sunday afternoon in the NFC Championship Game is why we watch football. It’s why we care about training camp cuts and mock drafts and advanced metrics, why we slog our way through preseason play-by-play and sit through the fourth quarter of blowouts, why we willingly give money to an entity so controlling that it threatened to eject Marshawn Lynch if he wore gold cleats onto the field.1 It’s why Packers fans will come back after having their hearts ripped out in the Pacific Northwest. Seahawks fans got something that might even be better than a Super Bowl: unbridled joy. A ring is the pinnacle for a player. The sort of earthshaking, exuberant, stunned happiness that comes with a fourth quarter like Sunday’s is the pinnacle of fandom.
Making the same sort of comeback in the Super Bowl might be more meaningful on paper, but there’s something to be said for this team winning this game in front of those fans in that stadium. In 10 years, when you think about this Seahawks era, the Wilson-Lynch-Sherman-Carroll teams, chances are that this will be the game you think of. When the announcers talk about Seattle’s home-field advantage in the years to come and how the Seahawks are virtually unbeatable at home, this is the game they’ll talk about, a comeback conjured seemingly out of thin air by noise.
Think about Russell Wilson. Cool, professional, unflappable Russell Wilson, the one whose personality I jokingly compared to a brand’s Twitter account in last week’s recap. Wilson won the Super Bowl and his postgame interview felt like a professional pitchman trying to sell you on how great it is to work hard and win a Super Bowl. On Sunday, Wilson won and wept profusely.2 Richard Sherman, the superhero cornerback who roared at the end of last year’s NFC championship win over the 49ers, played most of the fourth quarter with one usable arm and walked around afterward in agony. Byron Maxwell said the win “can’t be explained — it’s got to be God.” If winning the Super Bowl is like climbing Mt. Everest, this was like facing a deadly avalanche and surviving.
When Wilson had his fourth interception of the day bounce off Jermaine Kearse’s3 fingertips and into Morgan Burnett’s hands with 5:04 left, the Packers were up by 12 points and had the ball near midfield. ESPN Stats & Information estimates that Seattle’s chances of winning in that exact situation were a lowly 3.9 percent. Take the team with the best point differential in NFL post-merger history, the 2007 Patriots, and have it travel back in time to take on the worst team in post-merger history, the 1976 Buccaneers, in Tampa Bay. The Bucs’ chances of winning that game per the log5 method are 4.3 percent, narrowly better than where the Seahawks stood with a little more than five minutes to go.
Seattle needed just about everything to go right from that point forward, and as you already know, that’s exactly what happened. Outside of Lynch narrowly stepping out of bounds on a wheel route that otherwise would have been the first touchdown in Seattle’s comeback, the Seahawks suddenly exhibited an ability to cast miracles on demand. Of course, there was the expected onside kick, a 21.1 percent shot that went Seattle’s way in a spot where the game all but surely would have ended had the Packers recovered. More on that in a moment. There was the only 2-yard Hail Mary you’ll ever see, a two-point conversion that somehow fell into the waiting arms of Luke Willson. That play ended up saving Seattle’s bacon when the Packers were able to kick a field goal on their ensuing drive. With a defense riddled by injuries, it was a blessing that the Seahawks won the overtime coin toss, never giving the ball back to Aaron Rodgers & Co.
Amid the wondrous display of marvels is the more subtle question of how the Seahawks actually came back and won the dang football game. Obviously, staying away from turnovers helped, as five of Seattle’s first 11 meaningful possessions4 ended in giveaways. The Seahawks got back to moving the ball by relying heavily on the zone-read, a move that reaped instant dividends. Through the end of the third quarter, per ESPN Stats & Information, the Seahawks ran the read-option on seven running plays and generated a total of just 28 yards. In the fourth quarter and overtime, though, Seattle ran the ball 10 times with the read-option, picking up 93 yards and two touchdowns in the process.
If one takes the longer view, Seattle’s defense is beginning to stand out as legendary. Over the last three years, 31 of the 32 N.F.L. teams have allowed more than 10,000 passing yards; Seattle has allowed fewer than 9,000. Over the last three years, Seattle has allowed an average of 282.3 yards per game; the other 31 teams have allowed an average of 350.1, and no other team has allowed fewer than 310. And, since 2012, the Seahawks have allowed 15.2 points per game. Only one other defense (the 49ers’, at 18.4) has allowed fewer than 20 points a game during that time, and the other 31 teams have allowed an average of 23.2.
Playing in today’s offense-friendly environment has, in some ways, hidden how dominant the Seahawks’ defense has been. Seattle has led the N.F.L. in points allowed in each of the past three seasons, becoming the first team to do so since the Minnesota Vikings (1969 to 1971). And the Seahawks have also led the N.F.L. in yards allowed in each of the past two years; since the N.F.L. merger in 1970, the only other defense to lead the league in points allowed and yards allowed in consecutive seasons was the 1985-86 Chicago Bears.
ut with a longer view, the Patriots’ offense stands out as dominant, too. Over the last five years, New England has scored 2,500 points, or 500 points per year. The next best team is Green Bay, and the Packers are still 216 points (or 43 points per season) behind the Patriots. The Patriots have also had only 76 turnovers over the last five years. That is easily the fewest in the N.F.L.; the other 31 teams have averaged 128.
So while this year’s Super Bowl may not be able to match last year’s in terms of glamour and hype, it is yet another matchup of a dominant defense against a dominant offense. It is also the clearest Super Bowl in which we may be witnessing a changing of the guard when it comes to the league’s dynastic team.
People will watch because they hate. They hate the New England Patriots because they think they are cheaters. They hate the Seattle Seahawks because they think they’re brash and cocky.
Normally, we stay away from things we hate. I avoid Brussels sprouts and kicks to the groin. Hate those. But this Super Bowl is different. This will be the first Super Bowl where the majority of fans watching will despise both teams, but the ratings will be through the roof. This could be the highest-rated Super Bowl we’ve ever seen.
Why? Think wrestling. In this case, hate is a fuel, and when two bad guys step into a ring, everyone takes sides and hopes the bad guy they hate the most gets thrown out of the ring.
If you rate hate on a scale of 1 to 10—with one being lima beans and 10 being strapped to a table next to a loudspeaker blaring Chris Berman yelling nicknames on a loop—there are many 10s in this game.
Pete Carroll: He’s a cool dude, to me. But he had his title stripped at USC, and the Seahawks have had their Adderall issues. Hate factor is fairly strong: 10.
Tom Brady: His combination of hair and winning engenders a strong duo of hate and jealousy, increasing his hate factor to Belichick level. Hate factor: 10+++++++++++
Marshawn Lynch: Lynch is the only player with a negative hate factor. The media hates him, which resonates with the public, and he scores negative hate factor points by grabbing his crotch. Hate factor: -1
Richard Sherman: He’s an extremely intelligent person who seems cocky and brash. Never bothered me, but some in America hate him with a passion. Hate factor is somewhere just short of Belichick and Brady. Hate factor: 10++++++
I could go on. The hate will explode. Except fans won’t get tired of it and will tune in closely.
So they can boo. So they can hate.
It has become a matter of course for experts discussing the hierarchy of N.F.L. quarterbacks to draw up a list with some ordering of Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
Luck, who plays half of his games under a dome in ideal conditions, is routinely acknowledged as the prince in waiting.
But if Luck is the prince, what does that make Wilson?
Wilson has as many Super Bowl rings as anyone on the above list except Brady. Wilson is also 10-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: 3-0 against Rodgers; 2-0 against Brees and both Eli and Peyton Manning; and 1-0 against Brady.
Why has it been so difficult to change the Russell Wilson narrative? Is it because, at 5 feet 11, he is considered small for the position? Is it because he plays far from the East Coast’s major media markets? Are his achievements all overshadowed by the Seahawks’ outstanding defense?
Or is it perhaps because — even in 2015 — experts still find it difficult to shower an undersize African-American quarterback with the heroic, Paul Bunyan-type accolades long reserved for traditional drop-back passers like Brady and Manning and, lately, Luck?
Wilson, who led all passers in rushing yardage this season, is marginalized as a running quarterback, even though in Seattle’s offense he often looks to pass first, and his well-timed runs usually emerge from that.
Brady was the quarterback, perhaps teased for his fashion or footwear or occasionally awkward celebrations, but never much on issues of substance. He was the underdog turned megastar, likable and respectable and just oh so good.
Bill Belichick played the villain, the supposed win-at-all-costs genius under the ratty hoodie. When allegations of underhandedness or unsportsmanlike play or anything else hit, it was all assumed to be Belichick’s orders, not Brady’s.
Now, however, comes the deflate-gate scandal. The NFL, according to ESPN, found 11 of the 12 footballs New England provided for Sunday’s blowout of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game were under-inflated by as much as 2 pounds per square inch of pressure.
And now this is a Tom Brady situation. Now these are questions for Tom Brady to answer, once the NFL’s investigation is complete, likely this week. After all these years, he’s earned the right to be heard.
It’s not uncommon for teams to try to rig the football to the preference of their quarterbacks. Some, most notably players with bigger hands, want the ball inflated as much as possible to allow for better spirals. Others want a softer ball that’s easier to grip and, on the other end, catch. Some of it changes by the weather and game conditions. Some of it is psychological.
Whatever it is, it always comes down to the QB.
You don’t just use random footballs in the NFL, or even major college football. They are never brand new. A coach doesn’t just decide “try that one.” They’ve been selected, and prepared, specifically for a certain QB, and in New England that means Brady and Brady only.
They can take weeks to get exactly right. They get scuffed and buffed to remove the slippery wax veneer. They get soaked in water to help make them less susceptible to moisture during actual in-game weather. Some teams rub dirt all over them. Others sand the laces just so.
In general around the league, almost every football has been thrown in practice by the starting quarterback prior to seeing game action. If he likes it, it gets promoted to Sunday. It’d be surprising if Brady didn’t follow that trend. After a decade and a half with the franchise, Brady’s precise desires would be well known.
The Seahawks will have two weeks to prepare for New England’s new eligible/ineligible receiver ploys. But the Patriots will also have two weeks to add wrinkles. How this plays out is anyone’s guess. We only saw the tactic a few times against the Colts. It’s still very nascent. But Seattle has a good response for this, as well as for the myriad shifts, motions and stack-release concepts that define New England’s offense: do nothing. This defense is talented at all three levels; it’s built to simply line up and play, and the Patriots’ stratagem is the ultimate “line up and play” challenge. Seattle’s man-zone Cover 3 hybrid can work against almost any offensive look. Sure, there will be instances when linebackers get stuck guarding wide receivers. But what the Seahawks have figured out is that against multifaceted, scheme-driven passing attacks, preventing the mismatch is not as important as being able to react to it. Don’t focus on what happens before the snap, just execute the play soundly. The emphasis is on preventing yards after catch. A wide receiver might catch a pass against a linebacker, but there will be a handful of fast, fierce defenders racing to the ball. …
And the winner is …
New England 23, Seattle 17
This is a nerve-racking pick; it’s hard to overcome visions of Russell Wilson running around and making spectacular out-of-structure plays. But the Patriots’ advantage in man coverage is so distinct that the responsible prediction is to go with New England. The Patriots will have to be patient in the running game. You beat Seattle’s defense not with big plays but with long drives fueled by the rushing attack. The Patriots, with their six-man O-lines and short-area passing game, are equipped to play that way.
Seattle is the No. 1 opponent-adjusted defense in the NFL, preventing 5.77 NEP per game that a league-average defense would allow. The Seahawks are so dominant because of their balanced defense, which ranks No. 3 and No. 4 in passing and rushing defense respectively across the league.
We should not sleep on New England, though. The Patriots posted -2.41 NEP per game defensively—meaning they allow almost a field goal less per game than a league-average defense. Those numbers are No. 6 in the NFL and the Patriots specialize in defending the pass; they rank fourth in passing defense, just behind Seattle.
The big matchup will come between the Seahawks’ prolific rushing attack and the Patriots’ mediocre run defense. The Patriots were No. 17 stopping the run, and they allow an additional point above expectation for every eight rushing attempts they face.
In a game that is listed as a pick ’em almost everywhere, our projection is no different. We give the Seahawks the slight edge, and a 52.3% chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Projected Final Score: Seattle 24, New England 23
Following the Seattle Seahawks‘ improbable comeback victory in the NFC Championship Game, wide receiver Doug Baldwin provided the world with an entertaining — if not superfluous — rant to any doubters left for the defending Super Bowl champions.
While finding doubters for the Seahawks as a team is a stretch, there are some concerns about Seattle’s receiving corps, which lacks a player on the outside who causes matchup problems for defenses, a la A.J. Green or Julio Jones.
“I told you guys that from when we play those guys throughout the year, they have some very, very underrated receivers and they can get the job done,” he said.
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