Which under-the-radar players could steal the spotlight in Glendale?
Super Bowl XLIX between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks overflows with dramatic storylines and features fascinating characters that rival any Hollywood blockbuster. Tom Brady is the A-list superstar. Russell Wilson fills the role of the successful up-and-comer looking to steal Brady’s thunder. Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick are the leaders of men looking to cement their legacies as the conquering head coaches of the football realm, all supported by a fantastic ensemble cast of Richard Sherman, Rob Gronkowski, and Marshawn Lynch. This is better than Hollywood.
While those stories and leading men will garner so much of the attention this week leading up to the biggest football game of the year, here are some x-factors that also could play a big role in the outcome on Super Sunday.
The most over-dramatic headline in recent sports memory will surely be the elephant in the stadium all week long. While media outlets relentlessly pine over PSI and the science of pigskin in wet and cold conditions, the Patriots will be completely ignoring the “conspiracy” altogether — or at least try to. For the first time in his NFL career, Tom Brady is seemingly playing the role of bad guy after last week’s awkward press conference in which Brady was asked if he thought he was a cheater. As a franchise, New England has long been known for its constant stoicism and professionalism, but is the spotlight from another “cheating” allegation during the biggest week of the football calendar going to be too much of a nuisance for the business-like Patriots?
Patriots’ Receivers vs. The Legion of Boom
Defenses beware — every eligible player is an option in New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ playbook, something the Ravens and Colts know all too well. This offensive versatility is due in part to the variety of weapons that Brady has to throw to, as six players have more than 20 receptions this season.
Brady loves to use the middle of the field to exploit defenses. With tight end Rob Gronkowski being such a matchup nightmare for linebackers, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell typically have extra space underneath opposing teams’ coverages in which to operate. But this Seattle defense is a different animal. The Seahawks’ vaunted “Legion of Boom” makes a point to get in their opponents’ faces (and their minds) with their physical play and relentless swagger. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell are backed by hard-hitting press safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and all four bring heavy pop to the field. It will be interesting to see how effective the Patriots’ receivers are against the LOB. Brady may have to rely on his running backs as pass-catching options out of the backfield more than he usually does.
Castaways, no-names, and journeymen have been lining up at running back behind Brady for the better part of a decade. And no running back fits the Patriots’ misfit mold quite like Blount does. Blount, in his second stint with New England, was claimed on waivers in November after being waived by Pittsburgh for leaving the field early during the Steelers’ win against the Titans on “Monday Night Football.”
Back with the Patriots, Blount didn’t see significant playing time until Week 15 against the Chargers when he rushed for 66 yards on 20 carries. Over the next three games Blount would total 21 carries for 80 yards, including three carries for one yard against Baltimore in the AFC Divisional round. But Blount came alive last week against the Colts, putting up 148 yards and three scores on 30 carries.
When Blount takes the field Sunday, the defense opposing him will be one of the best of the past decade. Seattle ranks first this season in total defense, first in passing defense, and third against the rush. If the Patriots are to have any success against the terrorizing Seattle defense, Blount may have to carry a lot of the offensive load.
Willson won't get the attention from opposing defenses that his tight end counterpart Rob Gronkowski does, but that doesn't mean he will be a non-factor in this Super Bowl. Wide receivers Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin will attract the most attention from New England’s cover corners, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, so Willson should see more balls thrown his way, especially in the fourth quarter. Willson has saved his best for last, as half of his catches and two of his three touchdowns this season have come in the final 15 minutes.
Willson caught just 22 passes during the regular season, but he averaged an impressive 16.5 yards per grab, making him a great option down the field. Fourteen of those catches also resulted in first downs and he has six receptions for 79 yards and a score thus far in the postseason. Due to Seattle’s efficient read-option run game, Willson could be most effective on play-action passes when linebackers are caught in-between reading the potential handoff to Marshawn Lynch or a Russell Wilson keeper outside of the pocket. The Patriots must also keep Willson in check on blitz packages, as he is averaging more than 14 yards per catch on plays in which defenses bring pressure.
Both Seattle and New England are near the top in the NFL when it comes to protecting the football. While turnovers may be limited in this year’s Super Bowl, the consequences of those turnovers could be the deciding x-factor.
The Seahawks uncharacteristically turned the ball over five times against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but only surrendered two field goals from those extra possessions, leaving just enough room for Seattle to force overtime by forcing several turnovers of its own. On the other hand, the Patriots led the NFL in the regular season with the fewest turnovers (13) and were second in points off of turnovers (110 points), and net turnover points (+61). If the Seahawks want to raise their second straight Lombardi Trophy, not giving Brady and company extra opportunities will be imperative.
— By Jake Rose