THREE KEYS TO A SEAHAWKS WIN
1 Wilson's wheels.
Take out every run by a quarterback across the NFL, and Seattle's ground attack would have ranked fifth in the league, not first. Russell Wilson's 849 yards on the ground were fifth most alltime for a passer and 210 more than this season's No. 2 running QB, Colin Kaepernick. The tenser the moment, the more apt Wilson is to take off. Counting the postseason, 23.4% of his rushing production has come in the fourth quarter of one-score games or in overtime.
2 How go the combos?
Seattle runs an abundance of isolation routes, with receivers spreading apart and operating on their own islands. But when they go to what are known as combination routes—where two or more patterns work off one another—No. 1 receiver Doug Baldwin is almost always the focal point. It'll be interesting to see if they attempt these routes when Baldwin is guarded by Darrelle Revis, a brilliant combo defender. If Seattle does, it'll be with Baldwin in the slot, running a downfield pattern to the sideline.
3 The other Boomers.
Richard Sherman gets plenty of attention—he's the NFL's best boundary defender, with a keen sense for diagnosing pass designs outside the numbers and using the sideline to limit receivers' options. But he couldn't play so aggressively if not for Earl Thomas, perhaps the league's smartest safety. And opposite Sherman, the long-armed Byron Maxwell has become a prototypical Seahawks corner. You might even see Maxwell matched one-on-one outside against Rob Gronkowski a few times.
THREE KEYS TO A PATRIOTS WIN
1 Ground power.
New England ran 40 times for 177 yards in the AFC championship win over the Colts; 23 of those runs and 108 of those yards came behind a six-man line. That extra lineman, Cameron Fleming, is often used at the point of attack, usually accompanied by a guard pulling around from the other side. This effectively puts an extra 650 pounds of mass in front of 250-pound bull LeGarrette Blount, who has shown not just power but also surprisingly light feet since rejoining the Patriots in November.
2 Gronk power.
Only two players were unanimous first-team All-Pro choices this season: J.J. Watt and Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski. An improving blocker, Gronk was used all over the formation in 2014, including out of the backfield in the running game. But he's most dangerous catching passes down the seams, which he often reaches from an interior tight end position, lined up inside No. 2 tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Gronk can also operate as a wide receiver, though that will be difficult against the Seahawks' corners.
3 Hidden gem Devin McCourty.
The safety can cover plenty of ground as a single-high centerfielder, where he smartly reads QBs and route combinations. Amplifying his value, he has also become a key man-to-man defender in New England's three-safety dime package, where he often takes the tight end. This should come as no surprise: His twin brother, Jason, is the Titans' best cornerback, and Devin himself entered the NFL as a first-round corner before changing positions in 2012.
Best Supporting Factors
Six guys not named Sherman or Brady who could play equally important roles on Sunday
LUKE WILLSON, TE
With Seattle's WRs likely to struggle against New England's CBs, an alternative pass catcher must rise up. Willson, a 2013 fifth-round pick, has gotten faster and smoother with increased playing time in the wake of Zach Miller's season-ending ankle injury.
K.J. WRIGHT, LB
KAM CHANCELLOR, SS
Meet the primary Gronk defenders. While both have covered TEs man-to-man (Chancellor in one-high safety coverage; Wright in two-high), neither will do it alone very often on Sunday. They'll help double Gronk in zone concepts.
BOBBY WAGNER, LB
This 2012 second-round pick has been the key to Seattle's No. 3 run D. Wagner has steady speed and an understanding of angles, particularly when pursuing to the perimeter. And like Seattle's other back-level defenders, he's sharp in coverage.
SHANE VEREEN, RB
Few backs can line up outside and do damage like Vereen. But unless Seattle plays straight man-to-man (which it actually did in the second half of the NFC title game), Vereen's pass production will come from the slot or out of the backfield.
VINCE WILFORK, NT
Not many 325-pounders play 70% of their team's snaps—especially coming off a torn Achilles. Wilfork, who joined the Pats the year they won their third Super Bowl, will give Pro Bowl center Max Unger trouble.
DONT'A HIGHTOWER, LB
Much attention goes to ILB Jamie Collins, but it's Hightower who took on signal-calling duties after Jerod Mayo went down. Extremely stout when taking on blocks, he's blossomed into a superb run defender and an important cog on inside blitz packages.
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