Ahhhhhhh Super Bowl Sunday. That day of days. That irreverent faux-holiday that seems to start when it should be ending, built around the virtuous American ideal that people should be more exhausted on Monday than they already would be.
It begins in the morning with a whisper, gently, with your non-football watching wife asking simply, what time is the game?
What time is the game?
Such a simple question. A game. A run-of-the-mill athletic event that should, by all accounts have a beginning and end time. And she’d like to know those times as she looks at you over her coffee. What time is the game. She’s sweet, and puts up with your dalliances with the type of stoic patience usually reserved for robots and maternity ward nurses and Jedi. But behind that honeysuckle entreat, behind that loving stare, there’s some weaponry. There’s some disbelief. This isn’t her first rodeo and on some level she can’t actually believe this day is here again. Because no matter how many times any of us use the “it’s only once a year” excuse, by the time that once rolls around, the hundreds of games in between have eroded the impact of the distinction.
The truth is that I don’t ever really know when the game officially begins. The “coverage” starts preposterously early. Six or seven hours early. That’s where they get you, because you’re used to a 1:00 EST game schedule on Sundays. And then they start with the long list of must-see footage. The field before anyone shows up. The vendors outside the stadium. The players as they walk in from the parking lot. Corporate tent parties for VIP’s. Unfunny comedians. You know, the stuff none of us could live without. There are Roman numerals everywhere, harkening back to empires of old. Not that most football enthusiasts can decipher them anymore, but it’s still wicked wicked classy. There are NFL greats and politicians and blimps. There are hawkers and die-hards and models. And then we get to hear a few choice words from the whitest man in the world.
And then they start the interviews. They ask a local chef how he made them thar ribs. They ask a woman in an Eagles jersey who she’s rooting for and she screeches that she don’t care long as it ain’t the Cowboys! Woooooo! Burn! Then they bring out the big guns. The analysts. Most of whom are former football players who had “helpers” do their work for them in college. Some of them are dumber than a chaise lounge. Some of them are fairly articulate. The networks try to comprise the panel of two smarties surrounded by four dummies. That seems to be the ratio where football commentary magic happens. And then they ask them to do what moderately uneducated people do best: predict the future.
Which unknown player is going to be a factor in the game today?
Which halftime speech will be more effective?
Which kicker will have butterflies?
Which team will have an advantage of turf?
Which team will commit the first turnover?
What will the score be at the end of the first quarter?
Good questions all, and the quality of answers would likely be the same whether you asked a former player or a garden gnome, because no one has a crystal ball. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Bets on this game have been flowing into Las Vegas for a year — since the second last year’s game ended. So damn the torpedoes! I say Brian Tyms will have 2 touchdown receptions! I say Byron Maxwell will pick three balls! I say Max Unger is the first player to lose his helmet! I say you’re all going to lose your minds when you see how amazing Kevin Norwood is! It’s so liberating to not have to worry about facts! Once more unto the breach of prognostication! No comment is too dumb for primetime! Gimme the 3s and 0s column on that office pool! It’s time to know the unknowable!
Luckily I suck at it and I don’t bet on anything, so that’s a battle I don’t have to fight with my better half. But the question is still out there, hanging over us as we jockey to our sides of the battlefield, archers easing their bowstrings back eeeeeever so slightly.
What time is the game?
“It’s later.” I say.
“Um, well, I set the DVR to record it and that starts at six.”
“Right but what time is the actual kickoff? What time does the game actually start?” She reiterates. There’s no let up in the sweetness. No hint of consternation. She’s unflappable. It’s like living with Mata Hari, assuming Mata Hari looked like Jennifer Connelly and schemed like Dar Adal. Somewhere behind me a regiment begins to lose their nerve.
“I think it’s like 7:15.” I say. “I’m guessing.”
“Why so late?”
Why so late indeed. It’s like the d-bags over at the NFL scheduling office have no idea the kind of predicament they’re putting me in. Because I have kids. And Sunday is a school night. And 7:15 is smack dab in the middle of the time where we cook Sunday dinner and then get the kids ready for bed. Could I be a cool dad and let them stay up and watch until halftime? Sure. I could do that. But they’re not football fans, so then it becomes just this unsupervised mania where they rejoice in finding a coveted loophole in my fascist bedtime rituals. Me standing, splitting my attention and catching like 30 percent of the game and 20 percent of their shenanigans. Them, rushing around in half-PJ’s, half whatever they were wearing that day. The little ones filling up every gig on my iphone taking the same picture of the Octonauts playset over and over and over again. The older ones yelling J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets! Just to hear me grumble. It’s a magical memory I’ll watch on my holoterminal forty years from now when my house is quiet, but right now it kind of blows.
Why so late?
“I don’t know.” I say. “It’s ridiculous.”
And now I am laid bare, because by questioning it, by undocking from the mother ship, I have split myself from the NFL herd, and Lady Castleton is a predator of the old world. Somewhere, a saber unsheathes.
“So, okay” she says, licking her chops, “so we have all day to get things done, right?”
No! I want to yell. Noooooooooooo! Super Bowl Sunday is the last real unofficial holiday until Easter. Its Football’s day. It’s my day. But that’s just not going to fly because since the sun set on Labor day of last year, every Sunday has kinda/sorta been football’s day. Every Sunday has kinda/sorta been “my” day. From now until September, I will be her thrall. Family time. Museums. Hikes. Filing stacks of god knows what mail we haven’t gotten to. Project completion. Progress. Togetherness. Joy. How utterly devastating.
So this Sunday is it. We’re on the clock.
What does Madison Avenue have in store for us this year? A fantastic five hour block of short films, interrupted only by temporary sketches of grown men in spandex and plastic harming each other for some reason.
Let’s take a look at the competitors.
If you’re naturally a Patriots or Seahawks fan, then the decision who to root for is academic. But if you’re lost in a haze of uncertainty about it, well maybe we can shed some light on one thing or another.
The Seahawks won their first NFL championship last season, and are back looking for more. They have a reputation as a hard hitting, tough team that focuses on fundamentals. Their defense has been ranked #1 for two straight seasons and comprises the identity of the team. The defense is so good, in fact, that many have suggested they’re the best defense in NFL history. A dynasty. A fearsome secondary prevents completions, and the defense as a whole tackle better than anyone else in the league. The offense is built around the running game, behind a road grading line and a modern day cyborg running machine known as Marshawn Lynch. He breaks more tackles and punishes more would be tacklers than any other back in the league, earning the moniker “Beast Mode.” The Seahawks struck gold at QB, picking up Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. He’s proven to be a dynamo, has a reputation as a giant slayer and knows how to make a play when he needs it. He’s as good of a runner as he is a passer. The Seahawks fans, known as the “12th Man” are among the best and most devoted in the league. They were long suffering before last season but are now enjoying a prolonged heydey. The Seahawks are excellent on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams. They’ve drafted as well or better than anyone else over the last decade. Last year, they embarrassed future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl, crushing the Denver Broncos. It’s a team firing on all cylinders and a repeat victory would surprise no one.
They’re coached by Pete Carroll, a dad so cool you can barely stand to look directly at him. Carroll cut his teeth coming up the ranks on the defensive side of the ball. He was the coach of the Patriots who immediately preceded their current coach and Carroll has openly admitted that he did a poor job and that he wasn’t ready to be an NFL head coach. After that he went to USC, won a national championship and built a program that, during his tenure, was the envy of the nation. When he came to Seattle he turned everything around and the current team is an accurate representation of his coaching vision. Carroll is a little bit out there in his personal life, a conspiracy theorist and reported 9/11 truther. That being said, there’s nothing out there about his coaching philosophy. Run the ball and stop the other team from scoring. It’s as old school as it gets. Carroll has solidified himself as one of the very best in the league.
The Seahawks are different than any other team in the league. They have a no yelling and no swearing policy. They’re new-agey. Positive reinforcement. Custom vitamin infused smoothies. Team yoga. They’re progressive and tough at the same time, two great tastes that don’t always taste great together. But they do in Seattle. A telling situation is that their best corner might be having a baby during the game and the coach is leaving the decision to miss the game up to him. Imagine that splaying out in Pittsburgh. Or Chicago. Or New York. Lastly, the Seahawks are never out of a game. If they get behind they never panic. You can never count them out.
The Seahawks run the football. First and foremost. They know they’re in better shape than you are and that they don’t need to score 40 points to win a game, because their defense isn’t typically going to let you get more than about 16. If you’re lucky. They have a bag of tricks but they don’t reach into it very often. They line up and hammer the ball down your throat before going deep to test your safeties. Russell Wilson is hyper-accurate and can make any throw. In fact, he sometimes makes the kind of throws that no one has any business making. He has power and touch. He throws equally well from inside and outside the pocket. He reads the defense like a seasoned veteran. He has crazy giddyup. He has that rare skill of being able to sense that a play needs to be made and more often than not he makes them. They have a bunch of little-known and little praised receivers but they always seem to get the job done. If there’s a weakness at all to the offense it’s that they don’t have name talent at their pass-catching positions.
On defense they press receivers, challenging teams to try to win 1-on-1 matchups. Their athletes are dominant. They have a daunting pass rush and an insane, turnover-producing secondary. Every level of defense has all-pros manning the roster. They’re an offense’s worst nightmare. They do everything right. They play sound gap control and set the edge. They’re as tough as they are athletic. They take great lines. They jump off the snap. Their safeties can pinch in and still have the ability to make a play deep down field. They recover well. They limit yards after the catch. They challenge every pass. They collapse the pocket. They play smart. If they have a weakness it’s that they don’t defend the run as well as the pass, but it’s certainly not a glaring hole in the defense. They also don’t always play the tight end as well, and sometimes they leave the middle of the field exposed. That being said, as long as super star linebacker Bobby Wagner is on the field, this is the most dangerous group of men on defense I can remember in my lifetime.
The Seahawks have remained relatively healthy. That luck was tested in the NFC Championship game when All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman sustained an elbow injury and All-Pro Safety Earl Thomas dislocated his shoulder. Both players should be ready to play on Sunday, though they’ll both be short of 100%.
Pete Carroll left USC amid a cloud of scandal. There are two sides to this. One says he got what he deserved and USC was punished in unheard of fashion. Wins vacated. Bowl game ineligibility, etc. It was no small punishment. The other side says it was a fallacy and Carroll did nothing wrong. I don’t have enough knowledge of college football to know. Last season the Seahawks under Carroll were rocked by a number of suspensions centered around the use of performance enhancing drugs. Adderall was specifically named. As recently as yesterday, a “standard” HGH test was issued to safety Earl Thomas, ostensibly because of his quick recovery from a shoulder dislocation. There’s some doubt around the Seahawks, but they’re generally regarded as a good franchise. Earlier this season, the Seahawks had a serious schism in their locker room between quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver Percy Harvin. The details are still coming out but there was some inane chatter about Wilson not being “black enough” whatever the hell that means. The Seahawks acted decisively, shipping Harvin out on the next bus to the Jets. Although it quelled much of the internal donnybrook, it also removed one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers from the roster.
The Patriots have statistically been the most dominant team in any professional sport over the last decade. They have three Super Bowl victories and two losses in that time period. Their identity is based around two individuals: coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. They are the engine that makes this ship go.
Since their last Super Bowl victory, the Patriots have been victimized through the air. No matter how many points they scored they just didn’t have the players to stop the other team from scoring. Bill Belichick has overwhelmingly drafted defensive players throughout that time period, but his track record for cornerbacks is abysmal. Knowing this, and knowing his window was closing to win another championship with Tom Brady, Belichick went out in free agency last summer and signed two of the best cornerbacks in the league, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
The Patriots are known for pressing the limits, and using creative solutions (sometimes this burns them). They’ve been known to take intentional safeties. They’ve drop-kicked extra points. They’ve pooch-punted. They’re all about situational football. They draft a certain type of player that they can then indoctrinate with “The Patriot Way,” an unspoken code of conduct that has benefitted them. They run out of the tunnel together, rather than introducing star players. They’re not afraid to take chances on players that other teams have given up on. Often, it fails, as in the case of Chad Johnson or Albert Haynesworth. Sometimes it pays off, as in the case of Legarrette Blount. The Patriots have a reputation for knowing when a player is about to lose a step and no player is safe from being traded for draft picks. These additional draft picks have allowed Belichick to “control” several drafts, though it’s unclear if that has benefitted the team.
The Patriots are the NFL’s gold standard. A yardstick team that other teams measure themselves against. The sense is that because of Brady’s age, the window is closing for them, though the team is relatively young at every position. This Super Bowl is the NFL’s old guard Patriots facing the new guard Seahawks. As with the Seahawks, a Patriots win would surprise no one.
Bill Belichick is the longest tenured coach in the league and also serves as GM. He’s the highest paid coach in the league. He’s primarily a defensive mind, not that his recent teams would give you any indication of that. He’s an iconoclast. He’s the only head coach in the league not in the NFL coaches union. He is widely mocked for his lack of gameday fashion sense, but he chooses his outfits and cuts the sleeves as a protest against the fact that the NFL forces him to wear a certain wardrobe. He recently passed Tom Landry as the winningest post-season coach in NFL history. He abhors dealing with the media, and is known for giving awful, boring press conferences where he mumbles through a litany of non-answers. He’s unorthodox, an island unto himself and inscrutable.
Do your job. That’s the Patriots philosophy. Play sound, fundamental football. Don’t try to do too much. Don’t do someone else’s job for them. Just do your job. Belichick says it the first day of OTA’s and every day right up until the end of the season. He’ll say it in his pre-game speech. He’ll say it on the sidelines during the Super Bowl. He’ll say it at halftime. It’s their mantra. The thought being that the coaches have slaved to do the higher end thinking and game planning and have figured out all of the x’s and o’s. Now it’s time for those x’s and o’s to just to what they’re trained to do and the rest will take care of itself. Belichick teaches situational football at every practice. In every meeting. What changes if the down and distance is X? What changes if there’s 12 seconds left in the half? What changes if the score is X and your opponent is punting from their endzone? It’s drilled over and over again to make it happen automatically on the field in pressure situations.
The Patriots offense is led by Tom Brady, who is as close as the NFL has to a David Beckham, even though he’s really just a football dork who accidentally ended up in a handsome body. Brady still has the tools at 37 to be a dangerous weapon, though he can’t sling the deep ball the way he once could. Brady has seen it all, and is rarely fooled by defensive pressure. He’s an old school pocket passer and while he’s pulled off a series of age and physics defying runs over the last half of the season, he generally stays out of the rushing category.
The Patriots offensive playbook is Tolstoy deep. They use more looks and more formations than any other team in the league by a wide margin. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ game plan usually isolates the weakest point of the defense and then attacks it over and over again until the defense takes it away, and they they apply pressure elsewhere. Brady looks for the open man in general, but tends to feed his safety blanket Julian Edelman. At tight end, the Patriots have 6’7” Rob Gronkowski, a giant among men, who has soft hands to boot. His presence on the field usually provides mismatch nightmares for a defense.
A few years back the Patriots repopularized the two tight end set which carved up the middle of the field. Lately, they’ve been less predictable. Case in point, when the Patriots were trailing the Ravens by two touchdowns, (twice!) in the Divisional round of the playoffs, Belichick reached into his bag of tricks to design a completely unpracticed formation on the sideline. The Patriots players executed it immediately. That sort of discipline combined with a nimble coaching strategy makes the Patriots offense generally very dangerous and tough to gameplan against. Their running game is solid, and Legarrette Blount may be the second most bruising back in the league after what the Seahawks have. If the Patriots offense has any weakness, it’s that Tom Brady doesn’t love to get hit. Teams like the Jets and Ravens who know how to get into his kitchen have rattled the future Hall of Famer. Look for the Seahawks to do just that on Sunday.
The Patriots have the best defense they’ve had in years, but more importantly, they’ve somehow managed to stay healthy. When the Patriots spent big money on Darrelle Revis in the offseason, it ruffled a few feathers with their long time prop in the center of the defensive line, Vince Wilfork, who asked for a trade. The Patriots managed to bring him back into the fold and he’s been a valuable piece in the front. While the Patriots have some enviable young talent at the linebacker position (even after losing defensive captain Jerod Mayo to injury in week 6) they’ve struggled a bit with their pass rush. Their secondary is a solid B+, though no one seems to be talking about the huge hole left when backup corner Alfonso Dennard was lost for the season. New addition corner Darrelle Revis is as good as advertised, as is former Seahawk Brandon Browner, though the latter has a tendency to take stupid penalties. The Patriots try hard to disguise their defensive calls and have the talent to mix it up. The biggest thing they have going for them is that they don’t typically have to win the game for the offense. If they play disciplined ball, they tend to put the team in a position to prevail. If the Patriots have a weakness it’s that presumptive edge-rush phenom Chandler Jones needs to get to the quarterback and they don’t match up great against deep speed. More than being great at anything, they’re good at everything.
How long do you have? I’m a horrible person to write this particular segment because I’ve been a Patriots fan for my entire life and I tend to bristle at this particular category. There was spygate, which you can read about, where the Patriots were fined and lost a first round draft pick for videotaping the defensive signals of the opposing team. Last week there was Ballghazi, or deflategate, which was in my opinion the biggest waste of time and resources I’ve ever seen. But everyone is entitled to draw their own conclusions. For a good overview, I suggest reading this piece from Rams star Chris Long.
The Patriots, in short, are rife with alleged scandal, and we can debate incessantly about how much of that is deserved. There are some people who will always view them as cheaters. There are others who think they’ve been unfairly targeted and labeled. Some people would have you believe that the Patriots alone flout the NFL guidelines. I’m not going to get into it, but here’s a laundry list of other infractions that no one seems to know or care about.
In the end, people are going to believe what they want to believe. I want to believe that the team I’ve cheered for for several decades is not a bunch of cheaters. I watched every minute of every PSIgate press conference and I don’t see how anyone can think these guys aren’t telling the truth. But that’s how bias works. I might be seeing what I want to see. It’s Rashomon. Everyone sees it differently.
Something kind of great is happening at the Super Bowl this year in that the two best teams are playing for the championship. Two of the best three, anyway. I think the Green Bay Packers deserve a nod for at least being in that top three. They had the Seahawks completely on the ropes in the NFC championship and frankly, they should have won that game. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen that the Packers managed to lose. Case in point: On the final onside kick, a backup tight end was supposed to block and let the all-pro wide receiver with the best hands in the league catch the kick. He didn’t do his job and they lost. That would never happen on either the Patriots or the Seahawks.
So what can we expect on Sunday? Well, it’s a pick ‘em, with no clear favorite emerging. These are both great teams, well coached, disciplined, who maximise their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Its funny because a few years back the Patriots traded Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch to the Seahawks for a first round draft pick and unintentionally taught them a valuable lesson. The Patriots teams that won titles in the early part of the century didn’t have name brand receivers. They didn’t need them. They needed players who were disciplined, who read the defense properly and were at a certain yard mark on a route at a certain time. Belichick famously has two requirements for his wide receivers: can they catch? (duh- but many can’t) and can they get open? Deion Branch didn’t pan out in Seattle, washed out and then came back to the Patriots where he played sound football again. The Seahawks wisely remembered that. They have a receiving corps that is continually derided, but yet always seems to come through. That’s a real asset.
Emotionally, it’s tough to say who has the edge. The Seahawks fell off in the middle of the season, which was a combination of the Percy Harvin behind the scenes saga and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner being hurt. When Harvin was shipped out and Wagner returned from injury, everything went back to working like a well-oiled machine. There may be some desire on the Seahawks to “prove it” after they were undressed and exposed by the Packers in the NFC championship game. It may leave the Seahawks raring to prove some naysayers wrong. The Patriots have some momentum going for them after overcoming the Baltimore Ravens in historical fashion in the divisional round and then annihilating the upstart Colts in the AFC championship. The air pressure speculation will only give them more reason to perform with properly inflated balls that will presumably be guarded by a team of Delta Force commandos.
The Seahawks don’t have an axe to grind with the Patriots or vice versa. These teams really don’t know each other. I vividly remember the 2012 game where the Seahawks came to Foxboro and beat the Patriots with some last minute heroics. It felt like a changing of the guard to me. It felt like Russell Wilson was drawing a new line of demarcation. I’m sure Belichick realized that he’d have to up his game to defeat a team like that, and the Seahawks have only gotten better since. Last week a backup corner on the Seahawks mentioned that he didn’t think Gronk was very good, but that was quickly defused by Coach Carroll saying that the player hadn’t watched film yet. Not much bulletin board material on either side.
What you can be sure of is that these teams will despise each other as soon as they take the field. Both teams are alpha males. Both teams view themselves as the big dog on the block. They both know they’re the best and use dominance and intimidation to subdue their opponents. The Patriots have legacy and a track record and a confidence that borders on arrogance. The Seahawks have a title and the threat of physical violence and quick thinkers and swagger. Something will have to give.
I wish I was good enough at film study to tell you what the teams were going to do, but I’d say that the Patriots will try to follow the Packers game plan, largely to a T. If you can get Seattle off the field on third down they seem surprisingly beatable. Look for the Patriots to spy Russell Wilson all day long to try to ensure that happens. I suspect they’ll also try to establish a presence in the run game to try to soften up that Seattle line and set up play action throws for Tom Brady. As for the Seahawks? Well that’s tougher. Their offense appeared to take a step back against Green Bay, so look for them to strike early and try to get some pass interference calls on some deep balls. Marshawn Lynch will always be Marshawn Lynch, but the key is to keep Russell Wilson in the pocket and not running for 35 yard gains on 3rd and 17. Turnovers will be bigger in this game than in other games, and whoever can convert on those opportunities will likely come away with a trophy.
Windows of a kind are closing for both teams. On the Seahawks, you just can’t keep that much talent on defense without paying everyone what they’re worth. On offense Russell Wilson is still playing under the terms of his rookie deal. That means he’s making $814,850. Next year he’ll be the highest paid quarterback in the league, with a deal that will likely be historic and put him in the 25 million per year range. No way can you pay him that and keep everyone you want to. On the Patriots, it’s just about Tom Brady. At 37, how many good years does he truly have left? He made a name for himself as a young buck, but can he do the improbable as a grizzled old lion? It remains to be seen.
Guess what wins championships? Say it with me: DEFENSE wins championships. And in that regard, this is all but a formality for the Seahawks. #1 in defense and #1 in running. That’s it people! Back up the truck, it’s over already. It very well may be that simple. In the nine times a #1 defense has been in the Super Bowl since 1990 that team has won eight times, with the one outlier being the #1 Steelers defense losing to the #2 Packers defense. With the woeful #13 ranked defense, the Patriots are in real trouble. Then again, these are the Patriots. They’ve done more with less. It may come down to a simple equation: Is the Seahawks defense that much better than the Patriots defense in comparison to how much better the Patriots offense is to the Seahawks offense. The unit that widens that margin on their side of the ball might decide the title.
So how do you pick a side? Well, how you feel about the teams, the regions, the players and the coaches will go a long way to deciding. If you don’t like Russell Wilson tweeting scripture, that may bump you to the Patriots sideline. If you think Tom Brady was coy about football deflation, you may end up part of the 12th man. If Richard Sherman’s chirping rubs you the wrong way you may end up rooting for red, silver and blue. If you’re on the fence, feel free to vacillate based on the game. There is no right team to choose. There is no wrong team. Both teams are built to win and both teams are deserving of the crown. It will all come down to a pure contest of will, of skill and of game day coaching. At the end of it all, only one team will rise up and claim the championship. It should be a great game.
Here’s hoping the best possible outcome for you and yours. See you next week with my last football article of the year. Cheers!