A Quick-and-Dirty, Impressionistic Take on Super Bowl XLIX

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This isn't going to be a data-heavy take.

One reason for that is I have yet to really encounter any data -- statistical or visual -- that can make a coherent case for one team as clearly superior. If "styles make fights," and they do, this game will be a study of intriguing differences.

The differences in the 2014 Super Bowl were far less intriguing. Going into that game I felt quite confident that Denver needed a Michael Jordan "shoulder shrug" type game from Peyton Manning just to have a shot. Denver's offense and Seattle's defense could not both play well. The units are basically mirror images.

Super Bowl 49 lacks that kind of train wreck match up because each unit for Seattle and New England tries to do something slightly different. They are different enough to be interesting, but not mirror opposites. Their differences open up the possibility that both units in a given match up can be playing well at the same time, just based on their respective strategy.

Matchup: Seattle Defense vs New England Offense

I have heard and read amazingly little that I agree with about this match up. I don't see why New England will or should abandon the short passing approach employed in the 2012 game to give the ball to LeGarrett Blount 25 times. New England is a grind-it-out offense. In many ways it is the archetype of the "new" four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. They put a lot of plays on a defense throwing passes to wear it down. Sure, they scheme their people in space to make plays but the Pats are content to play "keep away." I envision a game plan filled with bubble screens galore, slants, deep drops with dump offs underneath the linebackers, etc. They'll test the resolve of players, particularly nickel and dime corners, to stay disciplined. (I'm looking at you Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon.)

What distinguishes New England's short passing approach from Denver's is that the former's is not reliant on explosive plays. New England's approach privileges a patient QB that stays on schedule, who can live on a diet devoid of explosive plays. Interestingly, Seattle welcomes this approach defensively. At its core, Seattle's Kiffin-inspired defense invites (if not forces) an offense to be patient (if not plodding) and above all mistake-free. Mistakes lead to quick three-and-out possessions or turnovers. Even long drives can bog down, resulting in field goal attempts rather than touchdowns.

So you can see where New England could put together a 10-play drive that ends in a field-flipping punt where both units feel like they accomplished something.

Advantage? I think that is a completely open question. It's about execution.

Matchup: Seattle Offense vs New England Defense

Unlike many, I don't think New England plans to "sell out" to stop Marshawn Lynch. New England, with an admittedly better, younger version of Wilfork up front in 2012 didn't do much special to limit Lynch. Instead, I think New England will approach Seattle's offense much the way Todd Bowles does, with lots of blitzes and stunts. It risks the big highlight play, like Lynch's Beastquake 2.0. On the upside though, it forces Russell Wilson (and the offensive line) to play chess especially in the red zone. Consider New England's approach versus Baltimore in the Divisional round. Obviously, they didn't set out to allow 31 points. Forsett got his yards, but New England set out to affect Flacco. He looked great at times, but he had offsetting episodes of horrendous play. Overall, 292 yards on 45 attempts. Meanwhile New England's offense hummed like an engine.

In that sense, New England seems willing to trade off some explosiveness for efficiency. If they can affect the QB so he has low efficiency, it seems they'll take their chances elsewhere. New England's defense is 2nd best to Seattle's in offensive starting field position and 8th best in points per drive per FO drive stats. Offensively, Seattle and Baltimore drive stats compare quite favorably. Seattle is a bit better but not overwhelmingly so. I expect to see a similar New England game plan defensively.

Advantage? Again, mostly an open question.

Matchup: Seattle Returns vs New England Coverage

I won't say much other than that this is a clear win for New England. One reason their offense is so bloody efficient is that Stephen Gostkowski is a Terminator. The real Gostkowski was replaced by this machine some time ago, we're not sure when. It's mission is to locate future leaders of the resistance and eliminate them. But, the only historical records to survive Judgment Day are photos on Facebook. Thus the T2 locates future leaders of the resistance by scanning NFL game crowds between kicks. Because he never misses no one notices him. Deflategate is a classic bit of distraction meant to hide the real scandal in plain sight. (Belechick knows. Kraft knows. The league knows.)

Most of the margin between the special teams is based on the value generated by respective kickers. (Add to that, Hauschka was awful in Arizona earlier this year on a clear night with good kicking conditions.) Still, New England was better in every phase of the kicking game. The best Seattle can hope for here is to play to a draw, but Julian Edelman has been known to make a big play on returns. He has also been known to put the ball on the ground.

Advantage? New England

Is There a Timmy Smith in the House?

As you can see, I think this one is tough to call. A close game, and I don't even know for certain if it will be that, could come down to an ordinary play or two turned into a great play. An unexpected contribution from an unexpected source is often the difference between winning and losing.

As a Seattle fan I can point to a "Timmy Smith" player or two who seemingly comes out of nowhere to make a meaningful contribution. New England can point to Jonas Gray and certainly others who could play such a role. For Seattle I'd highlight Kevin Norwood and Christine Michael, though I suspect only one or the other will be active. (Some have suggested Luke Willson, but he's started virtually all year. He's not a secret anymore. He could have a dominant game. He could be a complete non-factor. Neither outcome would surprise.)

Kevin Norwood won't have had much tape to scout, and I feel comfortable speculating that the team trusts him enough to play significant snaps in 12 personnel either outside or in the slot. (Now that I've said that, of course he'll be inactive.) I love his size and athleticism in this match up and feel like he could do some damage against New England's safety or nickle CB.

Christine Michael seems more likely to be inactive. Wouldn't it be fun, though, to see he, Lynch, and Turbin on the field together? I think we all know that Michael has a level of athleticism that could turn a regular play into an explosive one.


New England by one, pick 'em, Seattle by one all seem about right to me. Basically, who the hell knows? At the risk of being trite and cliche I'd default to Pete Carroll's dictum. The team that does the most things right for the longest time will win.