By Jason Keidel
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This Super Bowl, an amalgam of Roman numerals and regal teams, figures to be as close a contest as we’ve had since the NFL and AFL became one.
You’ve got dominance, drama, and dynasties, with the Seattle Seahawks just building their empire, while the New England Patriots are trying to revive theirs.
Is Tom Brady about to join his hero, Joe Montana, in the pantheon of four-time Super Bowl champions (along with my boy Terry Bradshaw)? Or will the defending champion Seahawks extend Brady and Belichick’s February losing streak to three, even out their Super Bowl record (3-3), and splash gas on the cynical fire that the Pats can’t win without cheating?
A loss on Sunday would do irrevocable damage to the iconic HC/QB duet. It would make it more than a decade since the Patriots won a Lombardi Trophy, and none since Spygate, thus deflating their legacies far more than those 11 footballs.
So, add some “Deflate-gate,” much deflection, and a pick ’em point spread, and this game is literally a coin-flip.
All Super Bowls need a gridiron narrative, and this one has a few. We have the Patriots’ pyrotechnic offense against Seattle’s wrecking ball defense, red zone efficiency, turnovers, and New England’s quest to stop Marshawn Lynch.
So let’s get some stats…
In these playoffs, New England’s offense is racking up 410 yards per game while averaging 40 points. But since the start of November, Seattle’s defense is ranked No. 1 overall, No. 3 against the run, and No. 1 against the pass. Over the same period, New England is sixth in points scored, while Seattle is first in points allowed.
But remember, Seattle’s record-setting defense in the second half of the season came against QB luminaries like Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley, and Mark Sanchez. And in the NFC title game, one could argue that the Packers gagged the game as much as the Seahawks grabbed it.
If you buy the premise — and you should — that the Patriots’ fortunes hang on Brady’s ability to stay upright, then you should be encouraged by the fact that they’re ranked third in sacks allowed since the first week of November, and have allowed just 26 all season.
Over the same period, the Seahawks’ offense is ranked second overall, including having the league’s top rushing attack, while the Patriots defense is ranked 17th overall, but second against the run. Seattle’s offense is ninth in points scored, while New England’s defense is fourth in points allowed.
But which Patriots defense will we get in Arizona? The one that closed on Andrew Luck like the lid of a box, or the one that hemorrhaged yards and points against Baltimore?
No matter how we read the stat sheet, it’s almost impossible to find a singular beacon in the ocean of numbers. In truth, we’ve got two seasoned teams who rarely beat themselves.
It’s never a coincidence that the best teams keep the ball and take it from their foes. In 2014, the Patriots and Seahawks ranked second and third, respectively, in turnover differential.
And if you buy the premise — and you should — that Seattle’s fortunes hang on Lynch, then their top-ranking rushing offense (147 ypg in the playoffs) must keep the train rolling against a stout, Patriots rushing defense that is ranked second since the start of November.
One key stat on which Patriots fans will hang their hopes is red zone efficiency. New England scores a touchdown on 62.3 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line — fifth in the NFL, while Seattle is ranked 20th in red zone potency.
Since 2013, the Seahawks have the top-rated passing and overall defense. This season, they led the NFL in total yards allowed (267.1 ypg), passing defense (185) and third in rushing (81.5).
But they’re facing a white-hot Patriots offense, which has averaged 314 yards passing and nearly 100 yards rushing in January. And they’re led by the QB with the most playoff wins and Super Bowl appearances in history.
We can parse the particulars all we want, but as last year showed us, Denver stormed into the Super Bowl with the most lethal offense in NFL history, only to get stomped by Seattle’s bone-crunching defense. Stats don’t translate when a quarter-billion people are watching.
Cliches aside, the immovable object vs. the irresistible force, some truths do translate in the playoffs. Defense dominates offense, and running is more reliable than passing.
The stats are a push, as is the spread. But if you want to hang your hard hat on a curious number, the Seahawks are in the midst of a 19-5-1 run against the spread from December onward. So, in this case, all they have to do is win to cover.
I like that obscure stat. I also like the fact that two things trump trends and stats: a robust running game and a dominant defense. Seattle has both. And Russell Wilson is a big game talisman, going 10-0 against Super Bowl quarterbacks.
Besides, haven’t we seen this act before? Didn’t the Broncos surge into MetLife Stadium with the best offense in history? Didn’t Peyton Manning make a mockery of the NFL, including a shellacking of Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game? How’d that go on Super Sunday?
If you’ll indulge my ephemeral moment of football glory, I recall and regurgitate the fact that I not only picked three of the final four NFL playoff teams, but I also predicted that Seattle would play New England in the Super Bowl — back on Sept. 5.
I also said that Seattle would win the Super Bowl. I’m too close to perfection to change my mind.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel