PHOENIX -- Five months ago, when the NFL season started, this is the Super Bowl matchup many people expected.
The journey to the desert was bumpy for the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots started the season 2-2, and the Seahawks were 3-3. Seattle has won eight consecutive games, and the Patriots have won five of the past six, with the only loss coming in the season finale to Buffalo when nothing was on the line.
Now they meet with a shot at history. The Seahawks hope to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did it 10 years ago. The Patriots hope to become only the sixth team to win it four times (San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers).
ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a look at how these teams made it here and how they stack up in Super Bowl XLIX:
Blount: Mike, the last time these teams faced each other is remembered by many for Richard Sherman’s “You mad, bro?” comment to Tom Brady after Seattle's 24-23 victory. Brady threw 58 passes that day. Do you see the Patriots throwing that much this time, or will they balance it out a little more with LeGarrette Blount running the ball?
Reiss: I’d be surprised if we see 58 pass attempts again. The unusual part about that game was that the Patriots ran 85 offensive plays compared with the Seahawks’ 55. I’d be shocked if we see that great of a discrepancy in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks, who were still creating their identity in that 2012 game, have a little bit of a Giants-like feel to them. Their pass rush is able to create disruption with the standard four rushers, and Patriots followers need no reminder of how that has given New England problems in past Super Bowls. One way to settle things down is to get the running game going; whether it’s Blount or Shane Vereen, I’d expect the Patriots to be committed to that part of the game early. The quick, short passing game -- which is often an extension of the running game -- is part of that, too.
Terry, Bill Belichick said watching Russell Wilson reminds him of his youth and watching Roger Staubach with some of his Houdini-type plays. What stands out to you about Wilson’s third NFL season compared with the first two?
Blount: That’s certainly a good way to describe his ability to make something out of nothing, along with his incredible ability to elude pass-rushers. But two things stand out for me now. First, his knowledge about when to run and when not to. It’s always his last option, but he’ll take off if he knows there are yards to be had. Second is his growing knowledge of what a defense is showing him and trying to do against him. He often checks off into a better play based on the defensive alignment. That’s what happened with the winning 35-yard TD pass to Jermaine Kearse in the NFC Championship Game when he saw the Packers were in a Cover Zero, meaning no safety would be deep to help and Kearse would be one-on-one with a cornerback.
Mike, a lot has been said and written this week about Pete Carroll’s three years as the head coach for New England. After being fired there, his career blossomed at USC and now with the Seahawks. What’s the general feeling about Carroll’s time there from inside the organization and from the Patriots' fans?
Reiss: Owner Robert Kraft was unfiltered and honest this week at the Super Bowl when he said, “I think I probably handicapped Pete from doing as good a job as he could have done.” That was the case, because Kraft was coming off a situation in which Bill Parcells wanted the control to “shop for the groceries” and Kraft said he reacted to that by setting up a three-headed structure with Carroll as head coach, Bobby Grier leading the personnel staff and Andy Wasynczuk managing the salary cap. Kraft also said at the Super Bowl that it was part of his “evolution as an owner” and ultimately led him to hire Belichick to succeed Carroll. So to sum it up, it was tough timing for Carroll in New England, succeeding such a strong personality in Parcells and having a relatively new owner still finding his way; for fans, my sense is many of them didn’t fully get Carroll and unfairly labeled him as a laid-back, California guy.
Keying on Marshawn Lynch seems like an obvious place for the Patriots to start. How often have teams been able to limit Lynch this season, and, when that happens, how have the Seahawks responded?
Blount: In three of the four games the Seahawks lost, Lynch rushed for 61 or fewer yards. If a team can stop him, it does improve its chances. However, two of those three losses came before the Percy Harvin trade, when Harvin was a big focus of the offense. After the trade, the Seahawks got back to doing what they do best as a power-running team that uses the read-option to keep defenses off balance. Focus on Lynch, and Wilson is the master at taking off and running, but what makes him so effective is his ability to throw downfield accurately while on the run.
One year ago, Brandon Browner didn’t get to play in the Super Bowl with his Seattle teammates. Now he gets to play in the Super Bowl against them. Browner even said he wants his teammates to target the injuries of Earl Thomas and Sherman. Do you sense this is a special moment for him? And do you think Browner and former Seahawks defensive tackle Alan Branch know things about the Seattle offense that can help the Patriots?
Reiss: Great question, Terry, as this has been one of my big takeaways from the early part of the Super Bowl week. I sat in on the first 20 minutes of Browner’s session at media day, and the passion was oozing; it was clear how much this means to him. As Chad Finn of Boston.com wrote, Browner “talks like a professional wrestling heel trying to rile up a crowd; his cadence and booming voice makes everything sound like a declaration, a boast or a threat.” I also thought it was interesting that Brady said the team is tapping Browner’s knowledge. “Pete [Carroll] has run the same defense for a long time, and we’ve had a little insight from Brandon, who has talked to us about how he coaches,” Brady said.
The turning point for the Patriots’ season was a loss to the Chiefs. How fair would it be to say that a loss to the Chiefs was a turning point for the Seahawks?
Blount: Without question, it was a big turning point because the Seahawks haven’t lost since. Kam Chancellor and Thomas led a meeting with the team after that game to say, "This isn’t who we are, and we need to start playing for each other and trusting each other again." Another factor after the K.C. game was the return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who missed five games with a nasty turf-toe injury. His presence in the middle, along with Chancellor finally getting healthy, solidified a defense that went on a historic run in the final six regular-season games. But I believe the real turning point for this team was trading Harvin. It has taken a few weeks to get back to who they were, but shipping out Harvin brought back a feeling of trust and support among the players.
Mike, I don’t think anyone will be accused of deflating any footballs Sunday, but why do these wild accusations keep happening under Belichick’s watch? Does it all stem from the Spygate mess years ago? Is some of it just petty jealousy of all the team’s success?
Reiss: The past obviously doesn’t help them as it relates to this current issue. Although I personally think the impact of the illegal videotaping was minimal, and the coaches they were filming were in plain sight of everyone else in the stadium, the fact they still did it after the NFL sent out a memo prohibiting the action doesn’t earn them much benefit of the doubt. I mean, we had a team heating footballs on the sideline of a Vikings-Panthers game this year -- which is clear manipulation of the football -- and it was hardly a blip on the radar. So from this view, there is a different level of scrutiny with the Patriots. Some of that has been brought on by the team itself from the past, and some of it is generated from the league, which probably views the Patriots as a team that pushes the envelope harder than most. And as for jealousy, as they say, it’s lonely at the top, and there are quite a few who would like to see the Patriots knocked down a few pegs. The Colts, who, based on owner Jim Irsay’s tweets, sparked the investigation of the underinflated footballs, are the latest to join the hit party.
What have been the keys for the Seahawks defensively?
Blount: The biggest factor was Wagner coming back. That enabled K.J. Wright to go back to his best position at Will linebacker, which improved both spots. But the Seahawks also had some players step up in the interior of the defensive line and make an impact after nose tackle Brandon Mebane went down with a torn hamstring. Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a six-time Pro Bowl pick who signed with the Seahawks back in training camp, took over as the starter and played like the Williams of old. He made the most of his chance to finally reach the Super Bowl in his 12th NFL season at age 34. And the Seahawks received a huge boost from second-year defensive tackle Jordan Hill out of Penn State. Hill was sensational down the stretch with 5½ sacks in the final six games before a knee injury ended his season in the playoff game against Carolina.
Mike, in light of nickelback Jeremy Lane’s comments last week, saying he didn’t think Rob Gronkowski was that good, all eyes will be on Gronk on Sunday to see whether he'll make Lane eat his words. Lane isn’t likely to line up much against Gronk, but I can’t wait to see Gronk go toe-to-toe with Chancellor and Seattle's outside linebackers. And now there's the added element over Chancellor hurting his knee in practice Saturday. He's listed as probable, but no one knows if it will impact his play. How do you see this matchup playing out?
Reiss: I thought Browner’s remarks summed it up best: “That’s going to be one for the ages. Gronk is a beast and Kam is a beast.” I see them both making plays, so it might be a one-on-one matchup that is ultimately decided by which player rises up and makes the one final play in the critical situation that could decide the game. Just thinking about it fires me up for the game itself.
The Super Bowl often produces an unlikely hero. Any thoughts on some good candidates for the Seahawks in that regard?
Blount: Last year is a prime example with linebacker Malcolm Smith earning MVP honors after his 69-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first half. I’ll pick a couple on each side of the ball who could come up big this time. First is tight end Luke Willson, who has taken a major step forward in his second season. Willson is one of the fastest tight ends in the league. With Browner and Darrelle Revis on the outside for New England, Russell Wilson might look to make some big throws over the middle to the big Canadian. Also, wide receiver Ricardo Lockette is a blazer with good size who could get a shot at a big catch in a matchup with Browner. On defense, don’t be surprised to see linebacker Bruce Irvin make a game-changing play. He had two interception returns for touchdowns this season and has really blossomed after moving to the Sam linebacker spot last season. A real shocker as a hero could be rush end O’Brien Schofield, who has been a force off the edge in the second half of the season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him force a fumble and come up with a big sack at a key moment.