Ladies and gents, we have reached the final week of our bold predictions column. And what a joyous ride it has been.
We’ve certainly seen our shares of ups and downs, but like Seattle, we pulled it together just in the time for a stellar postseason.
Down to the 21st and final weekend of the NFL this season, only the defending champion Seahawks and Tom Brady‘s Patriots are left standing. Only one will wind up champion of Super Bowl XLIX.
Because it’s the biggest game of the year, we’ve provided five bold predictions. Look and see:
1. Run, Russell, Run
New England has yet to see a quarterback as mobile as Russell Wilson all season long. In fact, the closest quarterback to Wilson’s skill-set would be Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, and that’s barely a fair comparison.
Wilson and Marshawn Lynch are the lynchpins of the Seahawks’ offense, which is a predominantly run-first unit. While Lynch provides the burst between the tackles, Wilson’s ability to escape the pocket and either throw or run on the bootleg is what makes him so dangerous.
Seattle’s offense began to click once it turned to the read-option in the NFC Championship game, but how will the Patriots contain him while also narrowing in on Lynch?
Bold Prediction: Wilson has surpassed 100 yards rushing three times this season — against Washington, St. Louis and the Giants. New England’s defense has allowed 100-yard team rushing totals four times since Week 13, including in the Divisional Round against Baltimore. New England is vulnerable against strong running teams, which is Seattle’s forte. They can’t contain Wilson for long. Wilson hits the century mark Sunday.
2. Inspector gadget?
Something has gotten into Bill Belichick this postseason. First, he called for the gadget play in which Julian Edelman threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola against the Ravens. Then he followed it up a week later with Nate Solder as an eligible tight end catching passes all over the Colts.
You’d want to say Belichick has something up his sleeve, but will The Hoodie even have sleeves playing in an indoor stadium in Arizona?
Seattle’s defense is light years more formidable than either Baltimore’s or Indy’s, but one potential way to keep the stingy defense honest is to open the playbook up and test their gap responsibilities. So far, the Patriots are 2-for-2 in each round of the playoffs.
Bold Prediction: We’ve seen a wide receiver throw touchdown passes and a left tackle as a pass-catcher. The easy choice in predicting a gadget play for New England is the old Mike Vrabel pass route by the goal-line. But that’s an easy prediction; we want bold. Instead, I think Belicheck takes a page out of Sean Payton’s playbook and calls for an unexpected onside kick. Whether it’s in the second quarter or out the half, I think Belichick tries to attack Seattle’s special teams.
3. Beast mode, activated?
Lynch is coming off his best game of the season in which he carried the ball 25 times for 157 yards and a touchdown, also adding a 26-yard reception. In nine games in which he’s been given 20 or more touches, five times he’s eclipsed 100 yards, and only once has the game resulted in a loss.
On Sunday, Lynch will be going up an interior defense that includes Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones and some cat named Sealver Siliga. And that unit has been stellar during the second half of the season, particularly Siliga, who has the second-best run-stop percentage among defensive tackles in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Seattle boasts the league’s top rushing offense while Lynch led the league with 88 broken tackles and a 2.96-yard after contact average.
Bold Prediction: It’s a virtual push when it comes to Seattle’s run offense and New England’s run defense, so who do we trust more? Lynch has been absolutely unstoppable once he gets going, but at times Pete Carroll has strayed away from feeding him the ball. If Carroll gets too cute and gets away from Lynch, he won’t have a chance to get revved up, which scares me against the Patriots’ suddenly stout run defense. I don’t think Lynch will get enough carries to get going, which may allow Seattle to fall behind. Sorry, Skittles fans, but this will not be Lynch’s MVP-worthy game. He’s held to under 70 yards.
4. Brady up against past demons
In Brady’s two previous Super Bowl matchups with the Giants, we saw that twice a four-man pass rush able to generate pressure, and twice that was the difference. Who better than Seattle can generate that type of pressure with just its front four?
Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are two of three 4-3 defensive ends that generated 60 pressures off the edge this season, per Pro Football Focus, and Bennett and Avril ranked third and fourth, respectively, at pass rushing productivity.
Overall, Seattle sends five or more rushers 25 percent of the time, which tends to result in pressure 50 percent of the time. Four or less rushers results in pressure 33 percent of the time.
Bold Prediction: Bennett and Avril are two of the best pass-rushers in the league, but Seattle needs its linebackers like Bruce Irvin to also play a role. Against a five-man rush, Brady will find Gronk and Edelman on crossing routes and exploit Seattle in the short-passing game. Seattle is great at causing pressure but not always getting sacks, and Brady needs to be brought down in order to win this game. Expect LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen to help exploit Seattle’s blitz as Brady’s jersey stays clean.
5. The Legion of Boom vs. The Island
There’s no question Seattle’s Legion of Boom has set a precedent throughout the NFL as to how secondaries need to be build in 2014. The Pats went out and inked Darrelle Revis and former Seahawks corner Brandon Browner to deals, assembling arguably their best secondary and possibly overall defense since the Tedy Bruschi-Willie McGinest-Ty Law era.
Since Week 12, Revis, Browner and Logan Ryan have been throw at 34 times. Revis and Ryan have each allowed 15 catches and a catch rate of 44.1 percent, which according to Pro Football Focus is among the top 10 among corners, while Browner has allowed 19 catches and catch rate of 55.9 percent.
Since Week 11, safety Devin McCourty — a player we selected as a non-superstar who’ll have a big say in the game’s outcome — has two picks and four pass defenses.
Then there’s the benchmark, Seattle’s Legion of Boom. It’s engineered by Richard Sherman, who in his postseason career has eight combined picks and pass defenses versus eight catches allowed. Earl Thomas has gone 19 straight games surrendering two or fewer catches, and Byron Maxwell has yet to allow a touchdown since Week 5.
The return of Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor and Maxwell has helped to re-invigorate Seattle’s defense down the stretch. From Weeks 12-17, the ‘Hawks didn’t allow more than 245 yards of total offense, tallied 10 turnovers and yes, won all six games.
Bold Prediction: The second part of the final stat is that in the postseason, both Carolina and Green Bay posted more than 300 yards of offense, but were saved by a combined five turnovers. When it comes the Patriots, you can’t count on Brady to turn it over. Belichick has Rob Gronkowski to exploit the Legion of Boom, or at least attack it in alternative ways. Sherman and Maxwell are as good of a 1-2 punch in the league, but Belichick finds a way to keep them out of the loop. Patriots will top 350 yards of offense a third straight playoff game.
Winner: Patriots 23, Seahawks 20