Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona, in two weeks will be a matchup of the NFL's most recent dynasty franchise and what could be the next dynasty franchise.
The New England Patriots were the NFL's most recent dynasty. From 2001 to 2004, the Patriots won three Super Bowls in a four-season span. They are the most recent team to win back-to-back Super Bowls and were the most recent Super Bowl champions to win a playoff game the following year until the Seattle Seahawks did it this year.
The Seahawks won perhaps the greatest championship game in the Super Bowl era, rallying from a 16-0 deficit to beat the Green Bay Packers 28-22 in overtime. Russell Wilson rallied the Seahawks from a 19-7 deficit in the final four minutes to take a 22-19 lead. A gimpy Aaron Rodgers executed a 48-yard drive to set up the tying field goal in the final 85 seconds, sending the game into overtime. Wilson then lifted the defending champs back to the Super Bowl with a touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots blew out the Indianapolis Colts 45-7.
The Super Bowl has plenty of interesting angles. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was the Patriots' head coach before Bill Belichick. The game will feature the NFL's two best shutdown cornerbacks, New England's Darrelle Revis and Seattle's Richard Sherman. It's also a matchup of two of the league's best clutch quarterbacks, New England's Tom Brady and Wilson.
Here are 10 key questions heading into the Super Bowl:
1. What makes Wilson so hard to beat? It may go unnoticed on a team known for having a conservative offense, but Wilson can be unpredictable. Just look at the NFC Championship Game. On the two-point conversion that gave the Seahawks a 22-19 lead, tight end Luke Willson was supposed to be a blocker on the left side of the field. When Russell Wilson scrambled right, Luke Willson took a couple of steps into a route on the other side of the field. The tight end was stunned when the quarterback threw across his body and across the field for the completion. "He's the only quarterback in the league that can make that throw," Luke Willson said.
Then in overtime, Russell Wilson audibled out of a running play when he spotted the Packers in a Cover Zero blitz, which meant there wasn't a safety in the middle of the field. He fired a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kearse to win the game. Wilson is now 10-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
2. What is Brady's legacy? He might already be considered the greatest playoff quarterback in NFL history. He has 20 playoff wins, four more than Joe Montana. He's 20-8 as a playoff quarterback and has helped Belichick win more playoff games than any coach in NFL history. He has 49 touchdown passes in the playoffs, four more than Montana. On Sunday, he passed Peyton Manning for the most passing yards in playoff history. But he's also hungry. He's hasn't won a Super Bowl in 10 seasons. He lost in his past two trips to the Super Bowl, and his playoff record since the Patriots' last championship is 11-8. Brady is 37 and knows the clock is ticking on his career. He won't want to lose this opportunity to get his fourth ring.
3. Does either team have to worry about the officiating? No. This is where the Seahawks caught a break. Bill Leavy was one of the three referees who worked the divisional round who was eligible to do the Super Bowl. Having Leavy do this year's Super Bowl would have become a story because of the controversial calls that went against the Seahawks in their Super Bowl XL loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and how his crew may have missed a defensive holding penalty in the end zone at the end of Seattle's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs this season.
Bill Vinovich will referee Super Bowl XLIX, which is fine by the Seahawks. He called two of their games this year, against the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles. In those games, there were 15 penalties against the Seahawks. Eight were for mistakes such as delay of game, encroachment and false starts. Vinovich let the teams play in those two games. The Seahawks always have concerns about aggressive calls against their pass defense. Vinovich's crew called only one defensive holding and one pass interference in the two games.
4. What's the most interesting matchup? Seattle's secondary against Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots' two-tight-end offense. Gronkowski caught 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Seahawks gave up the fifth-fewest yards to tight ends (39.12 yards per game). The league average is 50 yards a game. They can match up against Gronk with safety Kam Chancellor or linebacker K.J. Wright, one of the better coverage linebackers in the league. The Patriots led the league with 622 snaps out of two-tight-end formations. The Patriots got 199.3 yards a game and 34 touchdown passes out of two-tight-end sets, according to ESPN Stats & Info research.
5. Will the Legion of Boom be able to deliver the boom? Safety Earl Thomas left the NFC Championship Game in the first half with a shoulder injury. He put on a harness and returned to finish the game. Sherman hurt his left elbow at the beginning of the fourth quarter but stayed in the game. "We got tape for the warriors," Sherman said. "I guarantee you in our next game, we will all be out there." But can they be effective? Sherman finished Sunday's game clenching his left hand and was in considerable pain. After the game, he said he wasn't sure he would have been able to lift his left arm above his head to defend a pass. Thomas' tackling ability could be hampered if his shoulder is separated. Both players will have MRIs on Monday.
6. How should the Patriots attack Seattle's defense? The only way to beat the Seahawks this year has been with an effective running game. In all four of the Seahawks' losses this season, the opponents (San Diego, Dallas, Kansas City and St. Louis) had at least 27 carries and more than 100 yards rushing. The Packers pushed the Seahawks to the brink Sunday with 135 yards on 30 carries.
The Patriots' run game has been inconsistent, although Belichick and Brady will take what the defense gives them, which changes week to week. They beat the Ravens in the divisional round with only 14 rushing yards. But then they punished the Colts on the ground for 177 yards. LeGarrette Blount had 148 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries. New England didn't have the bruising Blount until the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him after he left the field early during a Week 11 game. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry in five regular-season games for New England and could end up being a key figure in the Super Bowl.
7. How will Brady do against the Seahawks' defense? Brady might have some difficulties if he doesn't get Bryan Stork back at center. Stork missed the Colts game with a knee injury, but the off week could give him a chance to get better. The Patriots had trouble protecting Brady in the pocket early in the season before Stork took over at center.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Seahawks were the second best in the NFL in limiting passing plays when quarterbacks threw from the pocket. Rodgers' left calf injury kept him in the pocket for all but three passes Sunday. From the pocket, Rodgers was 18 for 31 for 165 yards and three interceptions. Brady is a master of working from the pocket. He completed 64.8 percent of his passes from the pocket for 3,949 yards and 30 touchdowns. The Seahawks will have to pressure him to win.
8. How will the Patriots' defense do against Wilson? According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Patriots ranked 16th in yards allowed in the zone-read. They faced it for 38 plays in the regular season and gave up 159 yards. Wilson ran the ball 35 times for 268 yards and five touchdowns out of the zone-read, which could spell trouble for the Patriots.
9. What is the position of excellence? This game should be a clinic for defensive backs. The Seahawks have the league's best secondary, the Legion of Boom. Chancellor and Thomas are Pro Bowl safeties. Sherman is a Pro Bowl cornerback. Byron Maxwell will be one of the top corners in the free-agent market. The Patriots' upgrades at cornerback played a big role in their return to the Super Bowl after a two-season absence. Revis is one of the best in this era. Brandon Browner, a former Seahawk, has added toughness to the secondary with his ability to jam receivers.
Quarterbacks shy away from throwing at Revis and Sherman, who each had an interception Sunday. Only 37 of 77 passes were completed, two for touchdowns, against Revis during the regular season. Sherman was beaten on only 34 of 71 passes with one touchdown. The Super Bowl will be Browner's first game against the Seahawks, for whom he played for three seasons. He did well in his first year with the Patriots, allowing 27 catches out of 53 passes and two touchdowns in nine games. But he was called for 16 penalties.
10. Who will win Super Bowl XLIX? The Seahawks should become the first team since the Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls. With a win, talk of a Seahawks dynasty will officially start.