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Friday, November 24 2017

NFL Predictions 2014: Super Bowl XLIX

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Championship Sunday overall was successful for me. I got both the winners (8-2 playoffs, 174-91-1 overall) and before Aaron Rodgers led a quick field goal drive at the end nearly nailed the final score of the NFC affair. It was a 22-19 game and my pick was 28-22. His antics cost me the over/under, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I was 1-1 against the spread (6-4 playoffs, 137-129 overall) and wholeheartedly regret not going with my 30-20 score in the AFC. The Patriots repeated history against the Colts and that should have been easy to see coming. Anyway, I was 1-1 on the over/under (7-3 playoffs, 151-112-3 overall). No matter what happens I have had a winning season and winning playoff campaign, but for me that amps up the pressure to get this pick right. I have had two weeks to mull it over and analyze to the point of obsession. Now is the time to just make the pick already. 

New England (14-4) vs. Seattle (14-4): For me this is almost a battle of dynasty versus legacy. The Seahawks want to form a dynasty. They can take a large step here with a win. Even though quarterback Russell Wilson's new contract will make it harder for them to work quality players under the cap going forward, this team is expected to be competitive for several years to come. Still, a Super Bowl loss can derail a dynasty. On the other side, the Patriots have a serious legacy issue. If they do not capture a post-Spygate title, most will view them as having won a few Super Bowls before getting caught cheating never to win another. Oh, and when I say got caught cheating I mean multiple times. 

The so-called "Deflategate" scandal is just the latest controversy for a New England team that has been plagued by them during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. Taping signals? Check. Using players on injured reserve in practice? Check. Deflating balls to avoid fumbles? In all likelihood, check. This is to say nothing of their willingness to use players of questionable character, ranging in offenses from LeGarrette Blount's infamous collegiate cheap shot of a Boise State player to now former Patriot Aaron Hernandez's murder trial. These are not model citizens, but they do their job right? Most of this will not matter on Super Bowl Sunday. New England is going to show up prepared to ball out, no pun intended. This is a tight matchup and they have a chance.

On principle, I have to say the better defense and especially one that leads the NFL as Seattle does, wins the title. Cliches get started because they are based in history. Defense wins championships. I could argue just a little that New England's defense has rounded into title form I suppose. After losing to Green Bay 26-21, they held five of their next six opponents to no more than 17 points. The exception was their comeback 35-31 playoff win over Baltimore. Speaking of that win over the Ravens, I worry about a team that had to pull every trick out of their hat to beat a team that barely scraped their way into the playoff field. If 17 points is the threshold of elite defenses, the Seahawks went seven straight games holding foes at or below that number until they played the Packers in the NFC Championship Game and won 28-22 in OT. To their credit, after falling behind 16-0 they pretty much shut them down. People blame conservative play calls, but give the defense their due. 

Venue is another advantage for Seattle. They just played a game here, in primetime no less, just over a month ago. In that game they eviscerated Arizona 35-6 piling up nearly 600 yards in the process. Obviously they also play here every season. New England last played here almost exactly 7 years ago. Remember that one? It was the post-Spygate season and they entered the game 18-0 only to have the champagne wheeled out of their locker room when the Giants defeated them 17-14. Now it's "Deflategate" and another defense capable of shutting them down stands in their way. Will history repeat itself as it often does? I am starting to believe it will. 

Public perception is that New England will win this because they were more impressive on Championship Sunday. Were they really? Seattle played a way better team in Green Bay, and managed to lose the turnover battle 5-2 and still win the game. Sure, they were extremely fortunate and probably should have lost. If the Packers had finished off, let's say a 19-14 victory would they be favored in this game? Probably not, because the perception is driven by New England pounding a shaky, one-dimensional Indianapolis team thanks in part to a 4-1 turnover edge. Turnovers are going to be spotlighted even more in this Super Bowl because of the deflation issue. Do New England ball carriers really benefit from a little air coming out of the football? Over time, sure. In this game, I think turnovers come from the quarterbacks.

Russell Wilson had an awful NFC Championship Game for the most part. He delivered when it counted, but played like he was a choker prior to the end of the game. If no one had watched him in previous playoff games they would have had no idea how clutch he really is. Tom Brady's kryptonite is the pass rush. Teams that bang him around have success. The easiest way to get to him is by covering up all his receiving options. Seattle has the personnel to do that in spades. Yes, tight end Rob Gronkowski is a monster. He is a nightmare to match up with, but even if they throw him the ball every play it is not like he will pick up 200 yards and 3 touchdowns. They need to work the running game against a stifling defense and somehow stretch the field on the outside. That is the problem actually. Once the outside receivers are locked down, it becomes a smaller field to defend for Seattle. They can creep towards the line of scrimmage and crowd the areas where their only other offensive threat, slot receiver Julian Edelman, does his work. They can also provide help stopping the run and making sure what little they get running the ball stays in front of them. No big plays for New England makes life very difficult for them. 

Sometimes I play this game out in my head trying to figure out the drives and it helps me reach a logical end. In this one, the Patriots let the Seahawks get the ball first and for once it turns out to be a mistake. Seattle gets a nice drive and winds up with a field goal to start the scoring. They also chew up a good bit of the clock and get control of the momentum early on. New England does nothing to change possession on their ensuing drive before punting, and with a couple first downs suddenly Seattle is able to kick another field goal to end the first quarter ahead 6-0. It will feel as though the first quarter passed in a blink.

The Patriots will have some success on their second possession because Gronkowski is going to make some plays. He gets one good chunk of yardage, and they scrape their way down the field to the red zone. I actually see one of the role players scoring the touchdown. A swing pass to Shane Vereen gives them a 7-6 lead about five minutes into the second quarter. It is well known that Bill Belichick wants to take away the opposing team's best player, but with Marshawn Lynch that is easier said than done. He is going to keep coming after them. His best trait is not getting tackled and somehow mustering an extra yard or two. These yards keep the offense in manageable down and distance situations. Their offense is weakened by the loss of Percy Harvin and Golden Tate compared to last year's Super Bowl roster, but the players who remain have managed to carry the load just fine. In this spot, however, they fail and put New England in a position to build a halftime lead. The Patriots manage another field goal and enter the locker room up 10-6 by not leaving the Seahawks time to answer.

Getting the second half kickoff, New England will have a chance to really put the hammer down. Instead, their offense will start to lose steam. Seattle's halftime adjustments are going to put the opposing offense in punt mode. Meanwhile, the Seahawks will continue to stay the course and just wait for their chances to score. It will not bother them to keep working the field position and keeping it close. After three straight punts to begin the half, Seattle gets down the field for a touchdown on a scramble by Russell Wilson whose legs will serve him well in this game. Another short field following a punt puts them in position to kick another field goal and lead 16-10 entering the fourth quarter. 

In the final frame, with the pressure mounting on Tom Brady, there is a big play. He is knocked to the turf fumbling the ball inside his own territory. The tuck rule does not save him this time, and Seattle quickly strikes for another touchdown on a run by Marshawn Lynch. They decide to go for two and fail, leaving their lead at 22-10 with about 10 minutes to play. Brady fires up his offense and gets them down the field quickly to answer with a touchdown drive. The extra point leaves them down 22-17 with maybe 7 minutes on the clock. With the pressure now on their defense, things get interesting. Seattle's offense pounds the ball at them on a soul crushing drive. The time taken off the clock is more important than the result of the drive, which is a long missed field goal with under two minutes to play. I would love to say Brady gets them down the field for a touchdown, but I know my history. I said a similar thing the last time he played here, thinking they would win 23-22. This time I feel like another mistake by Brady seals the deal. An interception by Bobby Wagner puts the finishing touch on a repeat win. He races in for the score to put an exclamation point on the victory. My MVP is Russell Wilson because he runs for 80 yards and a touchdown while not turning it over, not to mention 200 yards of passing: Seattle 29, New England 17 (SEA +1/under 48.5)

 
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