5 factors that will determine Super Bowl XLIX champion
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There's more to Super Bowl XLIX than deflated footballs.
A lot more.
Here are five keys to Sunday's matchup between New England and Seattle at University of Phoenix Stadium.
New England's offense has successfully used this gimmick during the playoffs. The Patriots jumble which players are eligible and ineligible receivers. This can cause confusion among opposing defenses and the officiating crews trying to keep track. One example came in the AFC championship game against Indianapolis when tackle-eligible Nate Solder caught a touchdown pass. Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said the Patriots like to unveil such looks when the opposing defense is tiring.
"It's something sneaky that they try to do," he said.
Even with the Seahawks having an extra week to prepare, New England could have a slew of funky new formations ready to roll that could catch Seattle off-guard.
"The mechanics have drastically shifted really quickly here because of what they've done," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. "If you noticed last week in the Indy game, officials were walking up to the line and pointing with two hands and demonstrating the eligible receivers and ineligible receivers. I think they'll do it even more so this week when they realize all that's taken place. It's an interesting style of stuff. It's not new to football. There's high school teams and college teams that have done it because their rules are suited better. It's harder in our league to make it work but (the Patriots) have done a nice job with it and given some teams some problems."
The Patriots thrive at taking away one part of a team's offensive attack. The focus will assuredly be on Lynch, who is coming off a 157-yard rushing effort in Seattle's NFC championship game win over Green Bay.
"He's aggressive, he's strong, he's got great vision, great balance, good feet -- he has everything that you would want in a back," Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "His feet never stop moving no matter what he's doing, whether it's picking up blocks in protection or getting out on a screen pass or a check down. He's always looking to make that big play."
Lynch does a lot of his damage after contact but Hightower said the crafty way Lynch runs is underrated.
"Everybody kind of looks at Lynch and thinks that he's just an aggressor and wants to run everybody over," said Hightower, who finished second on the Patriots in tackles with 92. "He'll run you over to get where he wants to get, but you never see him run out of bounds. He's always looking to cut back and make those big plays and those 80- and 70-yard touchdowns that you see."
Lynch is known for wearing down defenses and then busting long gains in the second half like his 24-yard touchdown run against the Packers. The Patriots will probably be willing to leave their cornerbacks in press coverage against Seattle's no-name receiving corps to free safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty for run support.
Whether he was speaking out of confidence or ignorance, Seahawks nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane provided the Patriots some bulletin-board material last week when offering an unflattering assessment of New England's star tight end.
"I actually don't think he's that good," Lane said. "He's OK. He does have a big body. But from what I've seen on tape, he doesn't like you putting your hands on him. So if we put our hands on him and shake him up a little bit, he won't catch that many balls."
Good luck with that. A healthy Rob Gronkowski is the frontrunner for 2014 NFL Comeback Player of the Year -- and for good reason. He is the key target in New England's passing offense. Gronkowski is tied with Randy Moss as the second-fastest players in league history to reach 50 touchdown catches, doing so in just 59 games.
"You have to pay a lot of attention to Gronk because he opens those guys up," said Wagner, referring to New England's other receivers. As referenced by Lane, the Seahawks may employee a similar approach to stopping Gronkowski as they did with Jimmy Graham in last season's playoff victory over New Orleans. Graham was chipped at the line and frequently double-teamed, which helped limit him to four catches for 52 yards. Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor also is athletic enough to battle Gronkowski in coverage.
Big special-teams plays against the Packers were the highlight of an uneven season for this unit. The Seahawks got a huge boost in their Super Bowl 48 rout of Denver when Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown. Harvin is now gone, traded to the New York Jets during the 2014 season.
The kickoff return game then took another blow when rookie replacement Paul Richardson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Seattle's divisional-round playoff win over Carolina. Replacement Doug Baldwin lost a fumble against Green Bay when stripped on a kickoff return. Dallas Morning-News sports writer Rick Gosselin annually ranks the NFL's special teams units using a 22-category scoring system. The Patriots ranked third this season; Seattle was 17th.
If Tom Brady is allowed to set his feet in the pocket, bad things are usually going to happen to the opposing defense. It falls upon Seattle's front seven to make Brady uncomfortable enough so his throwing mechanics begin to falter. Seattle's defense has understandably drawn acclaim for allowing a league-low 185.6 passing yards a game during the regular season. But don't give short shrift to New England's offensive line, which is the most underrated unit in the Super Bowl.
The line was a mess through the first month of the season under a new position coach Dave DeGuglielmo and the need to replace Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, who was traded to Tampa Bay in the preseason. New England's offense began to click when settling on a starting unit comprised of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Stork will return for Super Bowl 49 after missing the AFC title game with a knee injury.
Seattle's Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are among the NFL's top pass-rushing ends. Both also can shift inside in passing situations trying to find a mismatch against a slower-footed guard. "They play with a lot of energy, a lot of quickness," Connolly said. The wild card for Seattle is outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, who is deployed in a variety of different ways by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.