Patriots to take on reigning Seahawks

This year’s Super Bowl will feature the top seeds from each conference of the National Football League: the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Each team struggled early in the season, and few analysts felt that either was primed to make a deep push into the playoffs. However, both have rebounded. Seattle, led by the unwaveringly optimistic quarterback Russell Wilson, and a defense that held five of its last six regular season opponents to less than 10 points, has won eight games in a row to defend last season’s Super Bowl title. Ironically, the last repeat Super Bowl champions was the Bill Belichick- and Tom Brady-led New England Patriots of 2003 and 2004, the same team Seattle hopes to defeat this Sunday. As for New England, the Patriots started the season 2-2, sustaining a 41-14 blowout loss at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. Since then, the Patriots have won 12 out of their last 14 games (and one of those came in an unimportant week 17 matchup against the Bills), and have benefited from a healthy Rob Gronkowski at tight end and the key mid-season acquisition of powerful running back LaGarrette Blount.

So, how then, do the two teams match up against each other? It depends which Seattle Seahawks team comes out to play on Sunday: the team that very nearly handed the National Football Conference Championship game to the Green Bay Packers in the first 55 minutes of action last Sunday, or the team that stole the game away from them in the final five minutes and overtime. Perhaps, to be more precise, it isn’t a matter of which Seahawks team shows up, but which Seahawks offense shows up that will determine the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX.

In the first half of the conference championship, Wilson threw three interceptions and wide receiver Doug Baldwin coughed up a fumble deep in Seattle territory. Green Bay managed just one touchdown out of those four chances, settling for Mason Crosby field goals on the other three to give themselves a 16-point lead that should’ve been a 20- or 24-point lead instead. Fortunately for Seattle, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t his usual accurate self, overthrowing what should’ve been a sure touchdown toss to Jordy Nelson, and defensive lineman Mike Daniels couldn’t restrain the urge to taunt Wilson, which resulted in a taxing 15-yard penalty that took Green Bay out of an all-but-certain touchdown position at the Seahawk 4-yard line.

Seattle took advantage of another Rodgers miscue, this time an interception caught by cornerback Byron Maxwell, to score its first touchdown late in the third quarter on a fake field goal touchdown pass no less, to make the score 16-7. With just under 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Green Bay tacked on another field goal to give them a 19-7 edge. Later, Wilson threw his fourth interception and the game appeared lost. However, Seattle’s defense came up with yet another crucial stop and gave the struggling Wilson another chance.

With 2:07 left, Wilson faked a handoff to running back Marshawn Lynch and dove into the Packer end zone to cut the lead to 19-14. Then, after Seattle recovered its own onside kick, it scored another touchdown in under a minute.

The game went to overtime and Wilson completed all three of his passes for 80 yards, including the game-ending touchdown pass to wide-out Jermaine Kearse that sent millions of Packer fans home crying. On the Seahawks final three drives, Wilson completed six of his seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Lynch finished the game with 25 carries for 157 yards, including a critical 24-yard touchdown run to put the Seahawks ahead.

Wilson will find the going even harder this week against a Patriots secondary with shutdown corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. But, if he and the rest of the Seattle offense can play the way they did down the stretch of the championship game, even the crafty brains of Patriots head coach Belichick and defensive coordinator, and RPI alumni Matt Patricia will struggle to slow them down.

Two other important players on the Patriots defense are mountain man Vince Wilfork up front, whose rare combination of size and speed make him one of the most formidable run-stuffers in the game, and the unflagging Jamie Collins, who tied for third among all defenders with four forced fumbles and 13th in combined tackles with 116. The Patriots defense isn’t pretty on paper, but it has done well getting stops when they are needed. Even in a loss to offensive juggernaut Green Bay in week 13, the Patriots defense played well in the red zone, as Seattle did last week, forcing the Packers to kick four field goals.

Now to the matchup everyone is so anxious to see: Brady versus the notorious Legion of Boom. The Seahawks defense hasn’t allowed a 250-yard passer since a week 10 rout of the Giants and has hauled in at least two interceptions in its past three contests. Injuries to safety to Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) and cornerback Richard Sherman (dislocated elbow) during the comeback win over the Packers will make the Seattle secondary vulnerable to the Patriots’ exceptional passing attack. Both players will suit up for the big game, though neither at 100 percent health.

The Patriots offense will rely heavily on the connection of Brady and Gronkowski, particularly in the red zone. Besides the seldom-used tight end Tim Wright, the only size the Patriots have is Gronkowski. Speed and the powerful running of Blount will get the Patriots into Seattle territory, but the Seahawks have proven themselves capable of stopping the run in the red zone. New England will need to throw the ball over the top successfully in order to score touchdowns. If they can take one lesson away from the NFC Championship, it is the need to convert opportunities into touchdowns, not field goals, against the defending champions. Look for Gronk to be targeted 10-plus times in this game, with at least a few of those coming on short “jump balls” inside the Seattle 10-yard line.

So who wins the final game of the season? Forget “deflategate” … Belichick has. Brady has. Deflated balls or not, the Patriots earned the right to compete for a championship. In convincing fashion, I might add (there’s nothing ambiguous about a 45-7 victory in a conference championship game). The Patriots are due for a win in the Super Bowl (they’ve lost their last two to the New York Giants) and Brady wants badly to become the third quarterback in NFL history with four Super Bowl rings (Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana being the other two). Patriots 24, Seahawks 20.