In American culture, the Super Bowl is more than just a game, and Super Bowl Sunday is more than just a cold winter’s day. The game itself can sometimes be overshadowed by the spectacle surrounding it, including the halftime show (recall Janet Jackson) and whatever is the current scandal or controversy (hi, “Deflategate“). There are also parties to attend and hot wings to eat, and, of course, lots of shiny new commercials to watch.
But ultimately it all comes down to the action on the field, and in Super Bowl XLIX we have a dream matchup between the league’s most recent dynasties, New England and Seattle. And for the second straight year, we have the top seeds from both the AFC and the NFC in the big game. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five key storylines and subplots to keep an eye on this Sunday.
It’s a term used too often in sports, but one that seems appropriate here. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — fresh off the epic “Deflategate” disaster — will return to a sixth Super Bowl together. Brady (pictured above) is the first quarterback ever to accomplish the feat, and if the Patriots win, his fourth ring will tie with Terry Bradshaw and the immortal Joe Montana for most all-time by a quarterback. Belichick, we know, will survive the current PR disaster, because he really doesn’t care about anything other than titles and rings. At 62 years young, he’s established himself not only as the premier coach of his generation, but as a coach perhaps second only to the superlative Vince Lombardi.
On the other side, we have Pete Carroll, 63, a coach whose rah-rah approach couldn’t be more different from that of his counterpart, but whose success is equally impressive. Carroll, a former New England head coach himself, is beloved by his players, who frequently talk about running through a brick wall for their leader. A consecutive Super Bowl title for Carroll would mean two as an NFL head coach and two as a collegiate head coach, something that’s never been done. Meanwhile, his quarterback, the undersized and under-drafted Russell Wilson, is already the winning-est QB ever through three seasons of work. If he wins a second world title at 25 years old, he will become the youngest quarterback ever to win multiple Super Bowls. In other words, regardless of which team emerges victorious on Sunday, history will be made.
Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks’ enigmatic 28-year-old running back, has been left at least $100,000 lighter in the wallet thanks to a series of fines from the league. Nevertheless, after another fantastic season and a fourth straight Pro Bowl invite, Lynch remains key to his offense’s success. Great as Wilson is, he doesn’t have a true speed threat at receiver (the Seahawks are 11-2 after trading the electric Percy Harvin), especially with the season-ending loss to rookie Paul Richardson in the divisional playoff win over Carolina. Wilson relies heavily on Lynch, the NFL’s leading rusher over the past three years, as both a runner and a pass-catcher who can turn innocuous plays into game-altering ones (Lynch leads the NFL in yards after contact). Seattle’s offense will often morph into a stagnant set of three-and-outs — as seen in last week’s game against Green Bay — and Lynch’s sheer physicality and rugged running style may mean the difference between a win and a loss for Seattle this weekend.
For what it’s worth, Lynch wanted to wear gold cleats during the NFC title game, and embattled Commissioner Roger Goodell and his office will reportedly be on the lookout for any obscene gestures this Sunday. If Lynch does not cooperate, the refs will give him a personal foul, 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff.
With all due respect to Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Jimmy Graham, there isn’t a more lethal pass-catcher in the league right now than Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski. An imposing 6 feet 6 inches and 265 pounds, Gronkowski is a touchdown dynamo with rare ability not only to stretch the seam of the field, but also to run a series of slants, hitches and fades. In turn, he gives Brady tremendous versatility inside the 20s and near the goal line. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recognize this and rarely ask Gronkowski to block. Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman got it right when he described Gronk as “pretty great.”
As a whole, the Seahawks surrendered a staggering 11 touchdown passes to tight ends in the regular season, tying for third most in the NFL, according to ESPN. So, while the team’s defense was downright dominant against receivers and running backs — ranking first overall in QBR against — it was just 22nd in all passes directed toward tight ends.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, 26, and Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis (pictured above), 29, are as dominant as it gets in pro football. They’re also very different players. At 6 feet 3 inches, Sherman relies on his long arms and nearly flawless technique, while also staying on one side of the field for all 60 minutes. For example, Sherman — a former fifth-round draft pick who has been named a first-team All-Pro three years running — has also played on the right side of the field for 99 percent of snaps in Seattle’s two playoff wins, per ESPN.
Meanwhile, the 5-foot-11-inch Revis, who signed on with the Pats during the offseason, tends to shadow the opposition’s best receiver, displaying an almost unrivaled ability to anticipate throws. This season, Revis allowed just three touchdowns when targeted. Both Revis and Sherman are known for a relentless dedication to the film room, and as usual, each player will have to face a highly dangerous quarterback this weekend. Finally, keep in mind that the duo had a controversial Twitter spat back in 2012. There are lots of layers here, is what we’re saying.
Seahawks-Patriots is hardly a rivalry game — the two teams have played each other just three times this century — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some bad blood between them. Just this week, Pats corner and former Legion of Boom member Brandon Browner came out in support of breaking Richard Sherman’s arm. “At the end of the day, this is about the Super Bowl,” Browner said. “I’m gonna tell my teammates to go hit that elbow, go hit that shoulder… Try to break it if you can.”
Sherman, for his part, has voiced his displeasure with the league not taking action against the Pats for “Deflategate.” “Will they be punished? Probably not,” Sherman said on Sunday. “Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. You talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all. Nothing will stop them.”
On top of all that, of course, it was during a 2012 Seahawks-Patriots game that Sherman’s now-infamous utterance — “You mad, bro?” — was coined, when Seattle overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit at home to beat the Pats 24-23. Thirteen points may not seem like much when we consider Seattle’s most recent performance, but that occasion marked the first time a lot of Americans had ever heard of Wilson or Sherman. The fact that it came at Brady’s expense and culminated in an instantly quotable verbal exchange adds yet more drama to a game already thick with it.
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