Breaking Down the Super Bowl & Who Will Decide Football’s Biggest Game

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Six months after posting my first NFL preview column for the 2014 season, I’m still worrying about the same exact thing as I was on that August day: the Seattle Seahawks.

During the preseason, the regular season and even the early part of the playoffs, I was praying someone else would knock the Seahawks off. As a sports fan, you’re always going to appreciate your team beating the toughest possible competition on its way to a Championship, but as a Patriots fan, I’ll take Super Bowl #4 any way I can get it. So if someone wanted to do New England a big favor and knock off the champs before a possible Super Bowl matchup, that was fine by me.

But it didn’t happen. It seems that in 2014, the Manning brothers ended their automatically-renewing deal with the devil and the Seahawks swooped in to take their place.

OK, everyone else in the country, your team couldn’t knock off Seattle so we’ll step up and do your dirty work. After all, I can’t imagine any impartial fans would be rooting for the Seahawks over the Patriots? That would be lunacy…unless the NFL fabricated a cheating scandal to purposely unite the nation in its hatred for a common enemy. But what league that claims any sort of legitimacy would get up to those types of shenanigans?

Oh.

For better or worse, we’re looking at one of the most anticipated Super Bowls in recent memory. We thought we had a similar game on tap last year only for the Broncos to no-show in the most important moment of their collective lives. Let’s hope Seattle doesn’t get scared of the Patriots and go down that same path.

At this point in the week it seems silly to go too deep into the matchups and analytics so let’s just tackle the pick for this game through a smorgasbord of random thoughts & stories.

A stupid cliche that won’t die

First thing’s first. Throughout this past week, I’ve heard a number of analysts and former players making their pick for Seattle based on that old cliche “defense wins championships.” I’ve heard it phrased a million different ways, but the bottom line is that people seem to think the better defense almost always wins out in the Super Bowl. As usual, I decided to do the research on my own. Here is the list of the past 13 Super Bowls with each team’s regular season defensive ranking (according to FootballOutsiders.com) in parentheses:

  • Super Bowl 48: Seattle (1st) over Denver (15th)
  • Super Bowl 47: Baltimore (19th) over San Francisco (3rd)
  • Super Bowl 46: Giants (19th) over New England (30th)
  • Super Bowl 45: Green Bay (2nd) over Pittsburgh (1st)
  • Super Bowl 44: New Orleans (17th) over Indianapolis (16th)
  • Super Bowl 43: Pittsburgh (1st) over Arizona (21st)
  • Super Bowl 42: Giants (13th) over New England (11th)
  • Super Bowl 41: Indianapolis (25th) over Chicago (2nd)
  • Super Bowl 40: Pittsburgh (3rd) over Seattle (16th)
  • Super Bowl 39: New England (7th) over Philadelphia (16th)
  • Super Bowl 38: New England (2nd) over Carolina (10th)
  • Super Bowl 37: Tampa Bay (1st) over Oakland (7th)
  • Super Bowl 36: New England (13th) over St. Louis (5th)

Out of these 13 Super Bowls, the better defense won the game seven times (54% of the time). And in five of those seven games where the better defense actually did win, it was by less than a touchdown. So there’s really no truth to this cliche, and Seattle’s #1 defense shouldn’t automatically intimidate the Patriots or the people who want to bet on the Patriots.

Two small items to consider before you pick

  • From a statistical standpoint, the number-crunchers at FootballOutsiders.com are calling this the closest Super Bowl matchup in history. While it’s fun to consider an alternate point spread prop bet that has one of these teams winning by 10+ and paying you off in a major way, it’s highly unlikely. Over & over this week I’ve wanted to make a case for why the Patriots will win in a blowout. I just don’t see it. Both teams are great at staying in games and making the right decisions and tweaks. Rarely do either of these teams suffer a true meltdown.
  • From an anecdotal standpoint, I’m assuming this is going to essentially be a home game for Seattle, right? It’s not that I don’t have faith in my fellow New Englanders..it’s just, well, no I don’t actually have any faith in them. That Seattle fan base seems much more likely to take a city over. They’re loud, proud & obnoxious in a way most cities could only dream of. They have a shorter & cheaper flight to Arizona. They didn’t suffer a blizzard earlier in the week that could have messed with their travel plans. They haven’t been to as many Super Bowls in the past 15 years and therefore probably have more fans clamoring to spend their kids’ college tuitions on a two-night trip to the Phoenix area. Let’s not fight it. The villain Patriots are playing in hostile territory on Sunday.

The head vs the heart

When thinking about this game on & off for the past 10 days, I kept coming back to one thing: Do I want to make this pick with my head or with my heart?

Picking from my heart obviously means I’m going with the Patriots. The heart says the Patriots are finally getting that jolt of Eff You motivation at the right time. In 2007, the SpyGate Eff You mode wore that team down by December. New England started playing angry in week 2 of that season and couldn’t sustain it for the next 20 weeks. But this year’s Patriots got screwed by the league at just the right time. They’ve had two weeks to get pissed off at all the irresponsible accusations. They’ve been thrown under the bus repeatedly and the drivers of those buses have made sure to back up and run the bodies over a second time. (We can refer to this as “pulling a Suge Knight” now, right?)

The heart also says that Tom Brady & Bill Belichick finally get Super Bowl win #4 and stand alone at the top of their respective quarterbacking and coaching mountains. The heart says they deserve this reward for continually building a championship contender the right way, for being the only team that you can consistently say year in & year out will almost definitely be one of the final four teams standing, and for handling more off-field adversity than any other team over the past two years (beginning with the Aaron Hernandez murder charge right before the start of 2013 training camp and extending through this past week with that goddamn football inflation garbage).

The heart says Brady has a game for the ages…perhaps something similar to his surgical dissection of the Jaguars in a 2008 playoff game where he went 26-of-28 for 262 yards and three touchdown passes.

The head doesn’t necessarily agree with all this. Ten days ago the head was telling me the Seahawks should be the pick. First of all, anyone with even a small amount of football & gambling knowledge should have predicted Seattle would be a two or three-point favorite over New England. But with the way the Patriots demolished Indy last Sunday night, coming on the heels of Russell Wilson’s worst game as a professional QB, the money immediately poured in for New England and we got this still-current line of New England favored by two points. So the head is definitely worried about the amount of money that came in on the Patriots early.

The head also knows that the current “Eff You motivation” could just as easily be a distraction. The entire team—especially the head coach and starting quarterback—have had to spend some time on the deflated footballs accusation since last Monday. Even if it’s not a lot of time, they still had to break from routine for a little bit. My guess is that there’s probably more examples in professional sports of a distracted team underperforming than of them banding together and overcoming the adversity.

But it’s not quite as simple as my head knowing the Seahawks should be the pick. My head also thinks the Patriots can win if they play a nearly perfect game.

It’s been pretty predictable for New England in the playoffs so far: Whatever aspect of their game seems like the obvious one that needs to be successful in order for them to win has indeed been the critical piece in advancing. Against Baltimore we knew they had to keep Brady upright and contain the pass rush. They did that exceptionally well compared to their last few games against the Ravens. And when facing the Colts, of course establishing the run is key to getting a win. They did that and then some.

So what’s the obvious key for the Patriots in the Super Bowl? I think it’s two-fold.

  1. No turnovers. Believe it or not, Brady has thrown at least one interception in eight of his last 11 playoff games. Turnovers are always a recipe for losing, but against this very fast and athletic Seattle defense, it’s even more crucial. You want to make the Seahawks’ offense earn every single yard & point, so a Pick-Six would be devastating (as would any turnover that leads to a short field for Seattle).
  2. Make Russell Wilson’s legs a non-factor. If Marshawn Lynch gains 150 rushing yards on 30 carries, so be it. The Patriots have allowed big days to many running backs over the years and have lived to talk about it because they almost never give up long runs. If a team wants to methodically chip away with four & five-yard runs all game, that’s fine by the Patriots. But if Wilson starts making plays by running, that’s going to open up the whole defense and the odds of Lynch ripping off those huge runs increase exponentially. The Patriots can handle one guy having a good running day, but not two.

Another thing I keep turning over in my head is that if one of these teams gets to 27 points, the game’s over. It sounds like a lot of predictions coming in from the experts have this being a particularly low-scoring game. I don’t see it being super low-scoring and I don’t see it being a battle of both teams reaching the 30’s. But I could see something like 28-24.

And this ties back to where New England has struggled in its past two Super Bowl appearances. This franchise has averaged 31 points per game in the regular season since the start of 2007. But in their two Super Bowls since then, they’ve combined for exactly 31 points. You can’t win many games when being held to 14 or 17 points.

Unfortunately none of this matters one bit

What we need to be doing is looking at this game from the standpoint of what the NFL most wants to see happen. Let’s face it, the NFL—and the NFL alone—is going to determine the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The league has done a fantastic job over the years of building the Patriots up as the ultimate villain, but is it as simple as creating a monster so a record-breaking audience tunes in and then the good guys vanquish the bad guys? If it’s that simple, then the NFL isn’t really milking this for all it’s worth. And we all know the NFL will milk something way past the point of that thing being dried up.

I think the best case for the NFL is for New England to win, but not in a tidy sort of “oh, turns out they can still win when they don’t cheat” way. It’ll be in an overtly controversial way. This allows the rest of the country to still be angry at the Patriots, and it provides a built-in villain for the 2015 season.

And what’s the NFL’s go-to blueprint for controversy? Letting the referees get involved and bungle an important call.

My head and my heart are telling me this game swings on a controversial play that will throw the refs into the spotlight and allow people to question yet another Patriots Super Bowl win. Gun to my head, I’d pick a phantom roughing the passer call against Seattle on a crucial 4th quarter New England drive.

For many different reasons, I’m picking the Patriots to win 27-24.

The Patriots get that elusive 4th ring. We all finally get to pop that bottle of champagne that’s been sitting in our fridge since February 2008. And hopefully the New England fans I’m with will be OK with an emotional embrace like this lasting image of Belichick and his coordinators from the Patriots’ last Super Bowl victory:

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A collective groan from the league’s other 30 fan bases

If we can look ahead to the 2015 season for just a second, I have some bad news for a lot of you football fans out there. The Patriots & Seahawks are going to be the odds-on favorites to be right back in this spot one year from now. And how can anyone try to argue against that? The Patriots are kind of a no-brainer considering their biggest rival, Denver, is on life support. The Colts, Bengals, Steelers and Chargers can’t be taken seriously. That leaves only the Ravens once again standing in New England’s way going into the 2015 season.

Over in the NFC, the Seahawks won’t have to worry about San Francisco for a little while, and Detroit/Dallas/Philly can’t be relied on for continued success. That leaves Green Bay. Having the best QB in football, the Packers are certainly a lot more threatening to Seattle than anyone in the AFC is to New England.

I’m already looking forward to the New England-Seattle rematch next year in San Francisco. And I’m sure there will be a fresh batch of controversies and off-the-field bullshit that the NFL will create just to keep itself in the news. Can’t wait!

Counterpoint from a Seattle fan

I promised to devote equal time in this column to both teams and that was clearly a lie. But here are the opinions of my buddy Brad, a Seattle fan whose sports expertise began and ended with the 1995 Mariners up until the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year:

I think the Seahawks are going to win the game for the following reasons:

  1. The Seahawks have enough great athletes to pressure Brady with four and double Gronk.  Unless Edelman goes off from the slot, Brady will struggle.
  2. Bobby Wagner is a beast.  So is Kam Chancellor.  They will destroy whoever Belichick runs out there as running back of the week. 
  3. Marshawn Lynch is awesome.  The Seahawks’ line will be healthier than they were against Green Bay and the Pats aren’t very good against good running backs. 
  4. Wilson will come back from his worst game since Pop Warner and keep them in the game while the defense and Lynch wear the Pats down.
  5. Also, there is this: When the public is betting on your team in Vegas, you’d better run for the hills: “Vegas, fans favoring Patriots.” 
My pick: Seahawks 27, Pats 13
Enjoy Super Bowl 49, everyone!
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