FOXBOROUGH – It was billed all week long as a Super Bowl rematch, and with good reason. It was the first time the Patriots and Seahawks had met on the field since New England triumphed over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX two seasons ago.
What few, if any, could have anticipated, however, was just how similar the ending would be.
Only this time, the roles and outcome were reversed.
Offensively, the Patriots immediately came out of their bye week and picked up right where they left off before the bye. Tom Brady and the O marched 75 yards in nine plays and put the first seven points of the game on the scoreboard, thanks to a LeGarrette Blount one-yard plunge.
But thereafter, the Seahawks thoroughly dominated the first half on both sides of the ball. New England's juggernaut offense had finally met its match.
On defense, the situation wasn't much better. Yes, New England managed to get a few sacks, but Seattle and QB Russell Wilson were able to move the ball consistently downfield on the Patriots all night long. Wilson threw for nearly 350 yards, many of those coming on long passes. Three of Wilson's leading receivers had individual long receptions of 36, 38, and 39 yards respectively.
"The ball was coming out of his hand pretty quick," DE Rob Ninkovich observed. "You've got to give them credit – they did a lot of great things."
"We knew they were going to throw the ball down the field. Very similar to when we played them last time [in the Super Bowl]… Just frustration from a defensive standpoint," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty admitted. "We were just one, two stops from winning that game. We have to do more to help the offense. They're moving the ball, putting points on the board. We have to hold up, play better in the red area. A couple of stops would have helped us."
New England finally found its offensive rhythm again by halftime, and was able to match the Seahawks nearly point-for-point throughout the second half. By this point, the game evolved into a boxing match, with both teams trading field goals instead of punches.
New England appeared poised to score again after a long kickoff return by rookie Cyrus Jones (he fumbled at the end, but a teammate recovered), but the Patriots lost the ball shortly thereafter when WR Julian Edelman fumbled after a catch near midfield. Seattle pounced, breaking the three-point trend with another Wilson-to-Baldwin TD toss.
Now up 31-24, the Seahawks went for two rather than attempt a 33-yard extra point. The effort failed, giving Brady and the offense a chance to tie the game and send it to overtime.
That's when the Super Bowl script was flipped.
Brady and the Patriots had the ball 1st-and-goal to go from Seattle's 2-yard line with under a minute to play and all their timeouts available. Brady kept the ball on a sneak, Blount was stuffed for no gain, and Brady fumbled as he tried another QB sneak on third down. He managed to maintain possession, though, setting up a 4th-down drama.
Do they run or throw?
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels chose to spread the Seahawks defense and sent TE Rob Gronkowski wide left, isolating him on that side of the field with safety Kam Chancellor. Brady floated a pass and hoped either Gronk would come down with it or draw a pass interference penalty.
Neither happened. The ball sailed long and incomplete. There was contact between Gronkowski and Chancellor, but none of referee Gene Steratore's crew deemed it flag-worthy.
"I wasn't trying to make contact," Gronkowski insisted later. "I was just trying to make a move and get outside and catch a fade ball. He was playing off me a little bit, pretty far, farther than usual. You usually don't see that, and it was a fake, so I had to go up to him and make a little move. I wasn't trying to initiate contact actually, it just happened.
"I mean, it didn't get called, it is what it is. If it's not a [pass interference] to the refs, then it's not a [pass interference] to the refs. The play is what it is, you can't really change it."
"Our execution wasn't great," Brady acknowledged in his post-game remarks to the media. "They put a lot of pressure on you defensively. They have a lot of good players and they make you earn every yard. That's what I respect about that team, that defense. They play to the end. They've been in a lot of close games. It came down to one yard at the end and we didn't get it."
In many respects, it was a great game. Watching two of the NFL's heavyweights do battle lived up to the hype, but if we're being honest, Seattle was the better team for most of those 60 minutes and deserved their victory.
"When you play a good team," Ninkovich added, "it always comes down to, throughout the game, one play here, one play there. If it goes one way, it changes the outcome of the game.
"Now we move on and look to the next game we have to play. We've got a lot more games to play. You take it on the chin and move on and learn from it. Keep grinding."
"We're disappointed… but we've got to keep it moving," echoed defensive end Trey Flowers, who sacked Wilson twice. "There's still a long season ahead of us."
And who knows, these two foes could see each other again before this season ends.