And then there were two.
Although, if you live anywhere with access to the internet, television, or another human being, you likely only believe one team will be vying for the championship on Sunday – the New England Patriots.
Some may call it media over-saturation. Some may still be seeking answers. Whatever your stance on the scandal in which the Patriots’ footballs were deflated in their AFC Championship Game victory over the Colts, the topic is not only unavoidable, but important. The story – or, at least, the constant circulation of it around the football globe – indeed has an impact on New England’s ability to prepare for Sunday’s bout with Seattle for the Super Bowl. But not necessarily in the way that seems most obvious.
The story is clearly distracting – for evidence, look no further than this column, centered around giving a prediction for the game, yet opening with the unsettled controversy – but that doesn’t actually make it a distraction. If anything, it is a galvanizing element. Weren’t the Baltimore Ravens supposedly ‘distracted’ entering their Week 2 divisional game against the Steelers amid the Ray Rice story? A 20-point win later, no one in Baltimore was complaining that the news was too over-reported anymore.
Like Baltimore, New England is a team that thrives on public denouncement. When they were pronounced ‘dead’ early in the season, they used it as fuel to a 10-1 stretch that locked up home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by Week 16. In fact, they may even crave it, seemingly sending a message to the league each time they blow out a team along the way.
They get the opportunity, again, as they enter Sunday’s Super Bowl with most of what was formerly the ‘neutral world’ rooting against them. They have been badgered by the media at every turn, and their ability to win without cheating has been called into question.
This benefits the Patriots on Sunday.
Ironically enough, if there exists another team in the league that is as fueled by criticism as the Patriots, it is their opponents on Sunday from Seattle.
Despite entering the season as defending Super Bowl Champions and what many considered the best team in years to have a chance at repeating the following season, the Seahawks received their share of public disappointment after their loss in St. Louis that dropped the team’s record to 3-3. Nine wins in 10 games later, the recovery was officially complete.
Recoveries, as we tend to define them, include a full return to form after some type of setback. As a microcosm of the season itself, could the Seahawks have better proven their championship pedigree than the unforgettable, remarkable comeback against the Packers? If this was a random team playing a random game in October, the comeback could yield diverging takeaways. When one of the league’s best franchises keeps its title defense alive when the stakes are at their absolute highest, the result is much clearer – Seattle refuses to quit.
It is somewhat remarkable that the Seahawks looked so flat in the first three quarters of the NFC Championship Game, but Green Bay deserves as much credit as the Seahawks do criticism, especially considering how poor the Packers looked on an Opening Night’s beating in Seattle months earlier. But the thrashing handed out by the Seahawks on a nationally televised audience to open their trip towards a potential title defense is a reminder of just how special this team could be. In a rare situation where team-friendly contracts have allowed a core group of key players to develop, the team has countered the typical Super Bowl hangover by avoiding the pitfalls of most defending champions. Moreover, the one adjective used to describe the Seahawks is the one most commonly missing from those who have tried and failed.
We constantly hear about “which team wants it more” and, whether or not there is truth in the comment and its impact on games, there are clearly signs of a team’s desire. Determination and willpower are obvious when watching the Seahawks’ players, and the outpouring of emotion the followed the team’s NFC Championship comeback victory was all the evidence needed to prove the importance of what is surely being considered an incomplete mission.
Winning Super Bowl XLVIII was the old goal. Winning Super Bowl XLIX is now all that matters. Falling short appears to no longer be an option.
Despite the mental approach for each team entering this game, the on-field matchups to which we should be treated are fantastic in their prestige. The Seahawks’ top-rated, eye-popping defense is the perfect complement for the Patriots’ top-five scoring offense, anchored by one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks in Tom Brady. New England’s defense and Seattle’s offense – both under-appreciated – are equally balanced and may ultimately be the weight that tips the scale in one direction or the other. Even the special teams play for each franchise has historically been a key component for winning.
Amazingly enough, everything on paper – including the spread which has yet to shift to a full field goal in either direction – suggests that the game should be close. In reality, it will be. For a little while.
Both teams’ strengths will obviously counteract each other while the game settles in and each squad finds its footing. After that, however, one team should pull away. New England has shown the consistent ability to pile on points once it takes the lead, but Seattle’s defense is so suffocating that it tends to hold off most comebacks. In addition, during the Seahawks’ current eight-game winning streak, they have yet to trail in the fourth quarter once they have regained the lead. Only once in that stretch – the NFC Championship Game – did they relinquish the lead at any point, only to win in overtime.
In today’s NFL, it is nearly impossible to win back-to-back Super Bowls – the last team to do so was the New England Patriots of 2003 and 2004 – and it takes a special class of talent to pull off such an impressive feat. Once the Seahawks hit their mid-season groove, they looked eerily similar to last season’s squad, and the emotional Conference Championship win should go a long way to refocusing the team’s attention on the final sixty minutes of football to played this year.
Seattle takes a second half lead against New England and never looks back. Seahawks win Super Bowl XLIX by a score of 34-17.
Playoffs Against the Spread to Date: 8-2
*Confidence Picks (Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread: 149-113-4