FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday (NBC, 6:30 p.m. ET), and after a week of hype, let's drill down and highlight the areas deemed most critical for the Patriots from this perspective:
Stopping Lynch and read-option: In our film study on the Seahawks, some of the best examples of opponents having breakdowns against the read-option was the season finale against the Rams (for example, 5:42 of the first quarter, 15:00 of the second quarter). Defensive ends and the linebackers have to work together on the edges, reading keys and being patient. The Rams sometimes just blindly rushed toward quarterback Russell Wilson off the edge, and when the defensive end was sealed to the inside, it opened up huge running lanes. The Patriots must be much more disciplined and this is why ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, are key players to watch closely Sunday night. The Seahawks give a defense a lot of action to contend with, and as defensive tackle Alan Branch said in our weekly P.A.T.. feature, it all starts with "building a wall" in the running game.
Gronkowski vs. Chancellor: Cornerback Brandon Browner, who has been teammates with both Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265) and Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor (6-3, 232), said it best about this projected matchup. "That's going to be one for the ages," he said. It's the NFL's best tight end against arguably the NFL's best strong safety. The Seahawks have been effective covering tight ends in the playoffs the last two years, but Gronkowski is their biggest challenge yet. One thing to watch: Chancellor went down late in practice Friday with a knee injury. Could that limit his effectiveness? If so, Gronkowski could have a big day, or force a change of plans with a linebacker such as K.J. Wright having a bigger part of the coverage responsibilities.
Capitalizing on special teams edge, starting with punt return: Special teams has played a big part in past Patriots Super Bowls. As it relates to this matchup, the feeling here is that New England has the edge in most areas. The Seahawks only had 17 punts returned against them during the regular season, a league-low, so their coverage unit hasn't been tested often. Patriots returner Julian Edelman is as fearless as they come in that area of the game (the Patriots had 41 returns in the regular season) and this is one of the "games within the game" we'll be watching closely. Edelman projects as a big difference-maker in a potential low-scoring game in which good field position is at a premium.
Discipline in pass rush to keep Wilson in pocket: Remember when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had almost 12 seconds to throw before firing incomplete in the Patriots-Packers game on Nov. 30? We envision a similar plan from the Patriots with their pass rush, focusing on a disciplined, conservative plan in which the ends sink at the line of scrimmage and never allow themselves to get too far up the field. That way, Wilson can't escape the pocket and extend plays. The Patriots might mix in a few more blitzes against Seattle than they did against Green Bay, but overall, the mindset seems to be keeping Wilson in the pocket and seeing if he can consistently win as a pocket passer. The Patriots know Wilson will extend some plays regardless, and when that happens, defensive backs will focus on the "plaster" technique.