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Patriots vs. Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX Pregame Six-Pack!

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Two weeks of hype and controversy are over. Finally, it's time for actual football and what has the chance to be a truly epic Super Bowl battle. It's like a huge heavy-weight pay-per-view fight. Bill Belichick's team rolled through the AFC title game into a shot at redemption in the Arizona desert, where the team's 2007 march to a perfect season came to a shocking end. Pete Carroll's Seahawks needed plenty of timely plays and a bit of luck in the NFC Championship Game to advance past the Packers for a chance to defend its title. There are endless storylines for true fans to fixate on for the next 24-plus hours. Belichick vs. Carroll, the only two coaches Robert Kraft has ever hired. Tom Brady vs. Russell Wilson, comparable winners in very different stages of their respective careers. Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman on display as two of the best cornerbacks in the game. A healthy Rob Gronkowski trying to run wild against the Legion of Boom. It's a matchup of the clear two best teams in the NFL for the 2014 season. As the remaining hours tick down till the Sunday evening kickoff, sip on this desert-brewed edition of the Patriots vs. Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX Pregame Six-Pack!

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  1. Kill the Beast** – Call him Marshawn Lynch. Call him Beast Mode. Call him America's most annoying interview. Most importantly, call the Seattle running back the key to any defensive game plan looking to have success against the Seahawks. Lynch is a powerful, game-changing runner. He can wear down a defense with his power, then break tackles and hit big runs that can break the back of the opposition. Lynch had 1,306 yards, a 4.7-yard average and 13 ground touchdowns. Whatever you think of Lynch's questionable antics on and off the field, he's a massive challenge for a Patriots defense front that's had its ups and downs all year long. The Seahawks don't have a great offensive line. So Vince Wilfork, Dont'a Hightower and the rest of the New England front shouldn't worry necessarily about being dominated and run over. Rather it's a case of needing to find proper run fits and solid tackling to keep Lynch from taking over the game and allowing the Seahawks to control the tone and tempo of the action. If the Patriots run defense can play like it did over the second half of the regular season, it will be a huge first step toward taking care of business on Super Bowl Sunday. But if Lynch is allowed to churn out positive yards with regularity – like Justin Forsett did early on in the Ravens playoff game – it could make for a long, difficult day for the New England defenders.

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  1. Find some balance** – While the men in the trenches on defense for the Patriots need to try to control the line of scrimmage, it's even more important for the New England offensive line to do the same. The Seahawks have an extremely impressive defensive front. It has size, speed and schematic aggression. The Seattle defense ranked No. 3 in the league against the run during the regular season. Seahawks opponents averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and a mere 81.5 yards per game. Those are certainly formidable numbers for a Patriots run game that's had its ups and downs all year, as much due to game plan as due to production. New England doesn't often try to run into overly strong fronts. But given that Seattle has the No. 1 pass defense, as well, nothing will be easy for the New England offense. And the Patriots have had issues in its last couple Super Bowl trips with pressure from the defensive front. The best way to stagnate that would be to balance out the offense and get the running game going early, even if it's not necessarily dominance on the ground. Eddie Lacy, James Starks and the Packers found some early success on the ground in the NFC title game. New England's offensive linemen and running backs would like to have the chance to do the same on Sunday against the Seahawks. It won't be easy to run against Seattle. But it won't be easy to throw, either. Giving LeGarrette Blount – or Jonas Gray, who hits the hole even a bit quicker than his bigger teammate – the chance to get something going early on and set up the play-action game could be a huge first step toward overall offensive success.

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  1. Protect 12** – One of the side benefits of getting the running game established would be to help slow the Seahawks pass rush and protect Brady. A year ago the Super Bowl started with a safety for Seattle and the pass rush harried Peyton Manning all day. The last two trips Brady has made to the big game – both against the Giants – saw him deal with plenty of pressure, including his own early safety. The Patriots offensive line has been inconsistent over the year. That can't be the case on Super Bowl Sunday if Brady is going to be comfortable and allowed to do his job. Sure he overcame a lot of hits in the divisional round comeback over the Ravens, but it wouldn't a good idea to count on that type of performance in the face of pressure a second time in three games. Seattle ranked 11th in sacks per pass play. But it's not just the sacks, it's the pressures and the tone the defensive front can set. The Seahawks send waves of guys at a line, rather than just one or two elite players. Nate Solder has been up and down. Sebastian Vollmer has been really solid. The interior should get a boost from the likely return of rookie center Bryan Stork, even though he's listed as questionable after missing the AFC title game with a knee injury. It will take a team effort, including Brady, to deal with the Seattle front and even give the Patriots pass game a chance to challenge the Legion of Boom. Keep Brady clean – mentally and physically –and then it's on him to put forth a big time big game performance against a big challenge in the Seahawks secondary. It all starts up front.

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  1. Fight 12** – One thing that's become quite clear this week is that the Seattle fans – the 12th Man – have traveled well. Very unofficial observation of the week around Phoenix has seen an abundance of Seahawks fans in full Seattle gear taking over the streets and chanting their way – SEA-HAWKS! – around town. It certainly would seem that it's likely there may be a pro-Seattle crowd on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. That will bring noise and emotion for the Seattle squad. But the Patriots may provide their own unflappable emotion after the weird two weeks of ball deflation controversy coming out of the AFC title win. Brady and Belichick have taken big hits to their reputations, as has the entire New England organization. That certainly could result in an us-against-the-world mentality in the Patriots locker room on Sunday. Only those on the New England sideline can attempt to quiet the critics via a win. Brady may have something to prove, an even greater chip on his shoulder than he's previously played with throughout his career. Belichick clearly wants nothing more than to win his fourth Super Bowl ring with the Patriots in his ninth overall trip to the big game in his career. Seattle likes to control the emotion and tone of a game, with the 12th Man playing a role in that. That's why Seattle is so good at home and not quite as impressive on the road. The Seahawks fans may have an advantage but it won't be like a home game for the Seattle squad, even in a familiar NFC West stadium. New England needs to be ready for the Seattle style and match it from the first snap. The Patriots may need to bring their own emotion in the face of a less-than-friendly crowd. The team is certainly capable of doing just that.

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3** – Despite what happened early in the NFC title game win over the Packers, one of the few weaknesses of the Seattle defense is in the red zone. The Seahawks actually ranked 26th in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing 59.5 percent touchdowns. Of course, the unit also allowed a league-low 37 trips into the red zone. So while teams were able to find the end zone once they got inside the 20, getting to that point isn't exactly easy. It's not overstating it to say that Green Bay lost its chance at the Super Bowl thanks to going just one for three in red zone trips, kicking field goals from the Seattle 1-yard line on two early possessions. A 6-0 lead is far different from a 14-0 advantage, especially in a playoff game. The good news for New England is the team was top-10 in the red zone during the regular season. Rob Gronkowski is arguably the best red zone target in the game – whether he's scoring for himself or being triple-covered to allow teammates to room free for touchdowns. Seattle allowed 17 passing touchdowns during the regular season and 11 of those came from opposing tight ends. Gronkowski is healthy for the Super Bowl for the first time in his career after an impressive comeback season. He's as emotional a player as there is and he's likely going to be amped up to carry his team to points and victory. He has a solid challenge against Seattle's impressive safety duo of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, both of whom are dealing with injuries, as well as athletic linebackers. The Patriots have never scored in the first quarter in the previous five Super Bowls of the Brady/Belichick era. Seattle's defense wasn't at its best to open the NFC title game, but came up big in the red area. If the Patriots get the chance to put early points on the board, they need to make sure they put the ball in the end zone for touchdowns and don't settle for field goals. As the Packers learned, that could come back to haunt them against a Seattle team that's not built to score huge points or come back from a large early deficit.

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  1. Star power** – Sunday's game is a marketing dream for the NFL. It includes some of the game's biggest stars at their respective positions. How those stars perform for their respective teams will go a long way toward deciding how the game plays out. The importance for Brady to put together another solid performance after two good weeks in the AFC playoffs will key the buffing of his Super Bowl legacy. The Skittles-fueled Lynch is the key to everything that Seattle wants and likely needs to do on offense. The Legion of Boom faces a unique, diverse challenge in New England's spread passing attack that can work the middle of the field, underneath and at times on the edges. Revis gets his chance to play on the game's biggest stage for the first time. Can he follow in the footsteps of New England's previous No. 24 – Ty Law – who came up big on the big stage? Maybe the biggest wild card star in the game is Wilson. The Seattle quarterback is trying to defend his title and win his second Lombardi in his first three NFL seasons, something that's never been done before. He can run it or throw it to beat a defense. He can make big plays from anywhere at any time. But he also showed against the Packers that he can also make mistakes and turn it over. If Wilson is on his game he challenges a defense like few others can with his read-option work with Lynch combined with his big-play throws. The Patriots will need a controlled rush up front to get to Wilson, with maybe some inside stunts and blitzes to keep him from getting too comfortable without letting him get to the edge. Seattle's receivers are known more for their reaction to their lack of production/respect than they are for actually making plays. New England's new-look secondary seems built to have the upper hand in the passing game. But much like Brady, Gronkowski and Revis are stars who could control the action for New England, Wilson, Lynch and Sherman could do the same for Seattle. The Super Bowl is a stage upon which stars can shine and historic legends can be born/extended. That will likely be the case Sunday, the only question is which stars come up the biggest on the biggest stage.

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Prediction:
As is so often the case, feelings on the Super Bowl tend to ebb and flow over the course of two weeks of breaking down the matchup. But I'm pretty much ending up where I started after the Patriots AFC title win. I think Sunday could be another epic New England Super Bowl. These teams do so many things so well, are relatively healthy and are buoyed by the strength of some of the more talented, proven stars in the NFL today. There is no obvious matchup or approach that should lead to an easy road to victory for either team. Obviously, if the Patriots can slow down the Seattle run game led by Lynch and Wilson it will be a major victory on the way to overall victory. But that is by no means even close to a foregone conclusion. It's actually unlikely. Lynch and Wilson will make plays. And given the overall dominance and versatility of the Seahawks defense, there is no doubt that the Patriots offense will have to work to make plays either on the ground or through the air. New England (No. 1) and Seattle (No. 2) take different roads to success, but they are the top two teams in the NFL in point differential for a reason. I think maybe the Patriots biggest advantage is Gronkowski. He could and should be the difference between the team taking the final step toward a fourth Lombardi Trophy and coming up short in two previous trips to the Super Bowl. In the end I think the Patriots will find some early relative success in the running game and build that into a productive, balanced day on offense. Defensively the front will slow but not stop the Seahawks running game, with my biggest concern being Chandler Jones' work against Wilson and the read option. Toss it all together and I think the
Patriots pull out the 27-20 victory**. I even think there is an outside chance the Patriots might overwhelm the Seahawks early, the slightest possibility that the Patriots could blow out the Seattle squad looking to be the first team to repeat its title since the 2003-04 Patriots. Either way, Gronkowski takes home the MVP. New England takes home a fourth Lombardi Trophy that puts Brady, Belichick and the entire organization into an historic new stratosphere. Cue up the Duck boats for the parade in Boston!

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