After a disappointing 2-2 start to the season, New England's streak of nine of 10 AFC East crowns and three consecutive trips to the AFC Championship appeared to be in serious jeopardy. Tom Brady, at 37 years old, was playing the worst football of his career, culminating in an embarrassing Monday Night Football road loss to Kansas City. And yet, as Bill Belichick's teams seem to do on an annual basis, they adapted. Now the AFC's top overall seed, the Patriots enter the Super Bowl in fifth gear, amid equal parts success and controversy (see above and below videos). Brady holds an impressive slate of playoff records, including most wins (20), touchdown passes (49) and yards passing (7,017).
Let's take a look at the three most vital elements for success.
When Brady has ample time, he's been called a statue in the pocket. That is what needs to happen against Seattle, a defense that has led the NFL for three straight years (the first time a team has had that run since Minnesota did it in 1971). Part of protecting Brady is quick drops and progressions that result in less time for the defense to generate a pass rush. Brady, for his part, is deftly accurate with such throws, and his 24 "short" touchdowns ranked third in the league, per ESPN The Magazine. Furthermore, the Seahawks were a woeful 27th against the short passing game. Brady, to his benefit, has developed a strong rapport with receivers Julian Edelman (92 catches in the regular season) and free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell, who totaled 74 catches for nearly 1,000 yards). All of this will open the seam for All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has become equally lethal in slant routes inside the 20s. The Seahawks, meanwhile, were the third-worst in the league in terms of touchdowns surrendered to opposing tight ends.
HE'S NO MARSHAWN LYNCH, BUT...
LeGarrette Blount has a similarly bruising running style that can be very effective against aggressive defenses like Seattle's. Blount -- who returned to New England late in the season following a failed experiment with Pittsburgh -- has become as close to a bell-cow runner as one can expect in a Bill Belichick-coached team. Most recently, he gashed Indianapolis in the AFC Championship for 148 yards and three scores. The Seahawks have had great success against the run, thanks in large part to a trio of linebackers that fly to the ball and tackle just about everything. The return of a healthy Bobby Wagner, a first-team All-Pro, has been the impetus to this defense getting back to an elite level. With Wagner on the field, Seattle allows a rushing touchdown every 82 carries, per ESPN The Magazine. But when he's not on the field, that number triples.
Like to Lynch, Blount is not a burner, but a highly patient runner with tremendous feet and vision that wears down defenses in the second half. Six feet tall and 250 lbs., he tends to get stronger as the game progresses. We can talk about Brady and the Pats' quick-strike offense all we want, but balance has been crucial to this offense, and Blount is a key reason why.
STRENGTH VERSUS STRENGTH
One of the most crucial matchups in Super Bowl 49 will be how the Patriots handle the dynamic scrambling ability of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Because he lacks a traditional go-to receiving option, Wilson relies heavily on his feet to both extend plays as a passer and as a runner. In fact, his 849 rushing yards this season not only led the NFL, but ranked sixth all-time in league history for a quarterback. But New England features a slew of athletic linebackers who can really run. Despite the season-ending loss of Jerod Mayo in Week 6, the duo of Dont'a Hightower (drafted in 2012) and Jamie Collins (drafted in 2013 -- and a former draft sleeper of this writer) -- have become arguably as important as the team's stellar duo at cornerback, Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty. Collins (above) led the team with 109 tackles while producing four sacks and four forced fumbles. Hightower finished the regular season second in team tackles with 92, while adding 12 quarterback hits as well. How the two young linebackers read their keys, play assignment football and ultimately disrupt Wilson's timing and comfort level could determine the game.
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