The last two coaches in Patriots history will square off Sunday afternoon in Seattle as Bill Belichick's Patriots (3-2) head to the Pacific Northwest to take on Pete Carroll's upstart Seahawks (3-2). It's a unique battle of the NFL's highest rated offense and defense, with two very different styles of teams looking to come away victorious. For the Patriots offense it's a chance to test its mettle against an elite D. For the Seahawks it's an opportunity to prove that the winning start to the season isn't a fluke and that Seattle just might be a playoff contender. For Carroll it's a chance, on some level, do get some bragging rights on his former employer. Beyond facing an elite defense, New England also has to make the long trip west and deal with a hostile, rainy Seattle environment. There's no doubt the Patriots are the road favorite in this one, but that doesn't mean it will be easy. As you get ready for the late Sunday afternoon kickoff put your feet up and enjoy this Starbuck's-free Seahawks edition of the Friday Six-Pack!
1. Strength vs. Strength – It's not too often that the NFL's No. 1 offense faces its No. 1 defense. In fact, this meeting between the Patriots and Seahawks is the first time such a matchup has occurred in Week 6 or later in the season since New England's own No. 1 offense beat up on the Steelers No. 1 defense 34-13 on Dec. 9, 2007 at Gillette Stadium. It's not like either unit is doing it with smoke and mirrors. New England has added a running balance to a unit that's been among the NFL's best for the last five-plus years. The passing game continues to make its plays and Brady is more than getting the job done. Seattle's defense was top-10 a year ago and is only getting better. It's a big, young, fast, swarming unit that puts a lot of pressure on opposing offenses in a lot of ways. The run defense (66 yards a game allowed) and the pass rush (16 sacks) get the most publicity, but the unit also sports some big, young playmakers in the secondary. Seattle has allowed just 54 points on defense in five games and hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last 128 minutes, going back more than two full games. But Brady and Co. have also been rolling. Carroll has done a great job turning over the roster and putting together a defense he can win with. That unit has dominated for much of the season, including on Monday Night Football in harassing Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. This is another test for that unit. Brady and the Patriots struggled a bit against the two better defenses they faced this season – the Cardinals and Ravens – and this would be a nice feather in their offensive cap if they can put up yards and points against the No. 1 D. It's probably unrealistic to expect 250 yards rushing, 35 first downs or 52 points, but the Patriots offense clearly has the capability to move the ball against just about any defense. This matchup should be very fun to watch.
2. Weakness vs. Weakness – If the teams' two strengths wash each other out, then it could come down to which team performs better with its lesser unit. That can even be taken a step further. The strength of Seattle's lackluster offense is running back Marshawn Lynch (508 yards) and the rushing attack. (Don't forget the Turbinator, rookie RB Robert Turbin!) But the strength of the Patriots defense is its No. 8-ranked run defense that allows 82.2 yards a game. So in the end this game could in some ways come down to Seattle's 31st-ranked Russell Wilson-led passing attack against the Patriots 30th-ranked pass defense. That doesn't help hype up a game quite as much as the No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense thing, but it might be the reality. New England has six interceptions and shown the ability to force fumbles after the catch. Wilson has thrown six interceptions as opposed to just five touchdowns. Is there a chance that Carroll could pull a rabbit out of his pumped-and-jacked hat and start Matt Flynn? Remember, Flynn did throw for 251 yards and three touchdowns for Green Bay against the Patriots back in 2010. Either way, the Seahawks probably need to take some chances down the field, maybe using Sidney Rice to challenge a guy like Devin McCourty on the outside. The Seahawks aren't just going to run the ball and beat the Patriots. Rice isn't having a great year in terms of numbers, but he has the potential to make big plays. Or maybe Golden Tate, who has a 41-yard touchdown already, will get his shot to make a key play. Either way it could be the better weakness as opposed to the stronger strength that decides this one.
3. Size and speed matter – One of the interesting matchups within the matchups is the size and speed battle. Sure the speed of the Seattle front is a major issue that Brady and his offensive line have to deal with. Bruce Irvin is a freak off the edge, but undersized. But maybe the bigger size/speed battle will come in the secondary. Who can Seattle match up with undersized Patriots slot target Wes Welker? The Seahawks starting cornerbacks are huge, with Brandon Browner at 6-4, 221 and Richard Sherman at 6-3, 195. Neither would seem to be a good matchup for the quicker Welker. Veteran Marcus Trufant might get the task, but his best days are behind him. On the flip side, Seattle's big corners and safeties (Kam Chancellor is 6-3, 232) could be interesting matchups for Rob Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots tight ends. That could change the way Josh McDaniels deploys his passing weapons as opposed to many other defenses he will face this season. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Patriots try to take advantage of Seattle's speed and aggressive play up front by using such tools as screens, draws, misdirection plays or an end around. Size is good. Speed is good. But knowing how to use them is just as important.
4. Special K – With the potential for this game to be lower scoring than the Patriots are accustomed to and a close battle, the kicking game could play a factor in the outcome. That didn't work out for the Patriots against the Cardinals and Ravens. Seattle has a clear advantage in the kickoff game. Leon Washington is a dangerous returner, with a 34.3-yard average and a long of 83 yards on the season. Thanks to that, Seattle has the best average drive start in the NFL (27.8). On the flipside, Seattle covers kicks to the tune of the third-best opponents' average drive start (19.4), against a Patriots team that hasn't really gotten anything going on kickoff returns for the better part of the last year. The Seahawks have also blocked two punts in their last six game plays, including one returned for a touchdown against the Cowboys earlier this year. Stephen Gostkowski has had his ups and downs this season, and a key kick on the road in a rainy Seattle would be quite a challenge. If the Patriots take care of business in the other two phases, the kicking game won't be as important. But if this game is as competitive as it has the potential to be, the third phase could be the difference. Seattle has the talent and capability of making plays in pretty much every area of the kicking game.
5. Going coastal – The Patriots don't have to fly all the way across the country all that often. (Although, this is a good routine tune-up for the trip to London in a couple weeks.) Back in 2008 the Patriots got into a dogfight with the Seahawks and lost at San Diego. The unique nature of the trip to the team and its young players is a challenge. NFL players are creatures of habit. So while traveling to Seattle on Friday afternoon may be the best thing in terms of dealing with the time change, it's a major alteration for the players to prove they can deal with. New England is a young football team and this is a new thing for many key guys on the roster. It's not a challenge that can't be overcome, but it will be interesting to see the kind of energy New England brings to the field early on in this one. Getting off to a good start would be a major coup for either team in this matchup. The rarity of cross country travel makes it an aspect of the game preparation that is worth watching.
6. 12th man – There is little doubt that Seattle boasts one of the better home field advantages and loudest crowds in the NFL. Seattle is tops in the NFL in opposing false start penalties since 2005, an apparent effect of the crowd noise on the communication of opposing offenses. The team trails only Green Bay for the best home record in the NFC since 2002, despite the fact that Seattle hasn't always fielded the most talented teams. CenturyLink Field was built with the 12th man in mind, funneling noise back onto the playing field. The Patriots have been practicing working with noise on offense all week, as they generally do for road games. But Seattle's crowd is a beast of a different breed. The best way to silence the Seahawks fans is to make plays, get an early lead and keep the home team from exciting the crowd through its own early actions. The Patriots have a pretty young team at some spots, and this will be a challenge to those guys.
There are a lot of ways to look at this game. Strength vs. strength. Weakness vs. weakness. But in the end it's still an NFL game, and to me that boils down to one major difference between these teams. Brady is an elite quarterback who can do what he needs to allow his team to win. On the other side Wilson is a rookie quarterback who clearly hasn't shown the ability to do just that. So while I have a lot of respect for the Seattle defense, I just don't think it can win the game on its own. New England will slow down the running game for the Seahawks and if Wilson can't take advantage of holes in the New England secondary with plays down the field, I just don't see how the home team can get the job done. And as good as the Seahawks defense may be, Brady and the Patriots are as good and equally diverse on offense. I expect the scoring will be kept down a bit from the usual New England 30-something to 20-something victory, but look for the Patriots will do the job on the road to the tune of the 24-13 victory. It won't be easy and mistakes from Belichick's team could infuse life into the home team and crowd. But in the end the better team wins, even on the long road trip into a tough environment. Look for the Patriots to make a lot of plays with the running backs in the passing game and with the receivers in the middle of the field. Big game for Welker. Big game for either Woodhead or Shane Vereen. Big road win for New England.