AT A JAN. 21 press conference, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a not-so-subtle allusion to Tom Brady's temper. "People sometimes get a skewed view of [him]," Sherman said. "That he's just a clean-cut [guy], does everything right, never says a bad word. And we know him to be otherwise."
What Sherman (and most of the league, really) also knows is that Brady loves to release the ball upon planting his back foot at the end of his drop. If he's not able to do that, teammates suffer the wrath that Sherman says lurks within number 12. When a blocker gets beat or a receiver falls off course, Brady, the micromanager of New England's option-route-intensive offense, is forced to move within the pocket. That's something he does quite well—but he still finds it far from ideal.
And that's why Super Bowl Sunday could be a frustrating one for Brady. Inside, Seattle's nickel defensive front features Michael Bennett, who has the quickest lateral first step of any 3-technique in football. Outside, there's 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin, who offers an explosive mix of leverage and speed. Lining up opposite him, Cliff Avril is an even more fearsome threat. These men will face a Patriots O-line that's been up and down in pass protection this season.
Then there's that vaunted Seattle secondary. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell can disrupt any receiver's timing outside. But the real battles will be fought inside, where Patriots receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski will face a linebacking and safeties group that's sensational at recognizing routes and helping each other in zone coverage. Together, they'll force Brady to make plays outside of structure. The Patriots can't win this game strictly through the air as they did in the divisional round. It's imperative that they maintain balance from their rushing attack. Beating the Seahawks on the ground requires a willingness to stick with the run when it produces three- and four-yard gains. LeGarrette Blount gives the Pats this drive-sustaining element.
When Seattle tries to do the same thing, it's Marshawn Lynch (not QB Russell Wilson, dynamic as he is) who makes the ground game go. He's unparalleled at gaining yards after contact, plus he has the lateral agility to create space behind a predominantly zone-blocking line—albeit one that may have trouble against a meaty, technically-sound New England front.
The read-option is Seattle's staple, especially later in the game if the score is close. Wilson's acuity here can make linebackers and safeties tentative, helping the Seahawks' passing attack stay afloat. It's a passing attack that often lacks rhythm and asks its receivers to win one-on-one—something they're not cut out to do. Leading receiver Doug Baldwin's 825 yards ranked 42nd in the NFL.
What Seattle's aerial game lacks in rhythm, Wilson makes up for in unbelievable playmaking prowess. Plenty of passers have been adroit on the move, but none quite like Wilson, who's accurate throwing to anywhere and from any platform. While most QBs' movements outside the pocket are randomized, Wilson's are structured. It's an integral—even deliberate—part of Seattle's offense.
The Patriots are one of the few teams with a front seven capable of competing with that. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich is tremendous at setting the edge, and he rarely lets opponents break his containment on the outside. Linebacker Jamie Collins is a rare athletic specimen, particularly in space. He'd make an excellent QB spy in a matchup like this.
Wilson can't win this game all by himself—but with his receivers facing Darrelle Revis and New England's stingy man-oriented secondary, he'll often have to try. That's why, for the fourth time in his career, Brady will lean on shrewd game management and a sturdy defense to claim the Lombardi Trophy. THE PICK: PATRIOTS 23, SEAHAWKS 17
GREG M. COOPER/USA TODAY SPORTS
ROB NINKOVICH, DE