After squeaking by the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoffs and crushing the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game, the New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl, their sixth trip since the 2001 season.
This one is different, however, accompanied by a real sense of urgency (and a stupid scandal involving deflated footballs, which I will not mention again for the remainder of this column). It’s been a full 10 years since New England last raised the Lombardi Trophy, and you can’t blame Pats for feeling antsy. Tom Brady is 37. Bill Belichick is 62. Soon their remarkable run will come to an end. This is probably going to be their last Super Bowl together, because sooner or later Brady is going to break down, and Belichick is going to step down, and the Patriots will become just another team.
But for one more game, at least, the Patriots can still be the best team in football. They can be champions once more.
Just don’t ask me who I think is going to win Super Bowl XLIX, because while I’m obligated to say New England, I honestly have no idea. Both teams are on incredible rolls, coming off galvanizing victories in their respective league title games. New England’s won 12 of its last 14, while Seattle’s won eight in a row and 11 of their past 12. The Pats and Seahawks have been unbeatable lately, managing to win even on the rare instances when they’ve been outplayed, as New England was during the divisional round and Seattle was in the NFC championship.
Looking back at the regular season doesn’t sway me either way. Both contestants were the top seeds in their conferences, with identical 12-4 records and the two best point differentials in the NFL. Both won one playoff game by a nose and took the other by a comfortable margin. There’s not much to glean from their history of head-to-head matchups, either; they’ve met 16 times during the regular season, most recently in 2012. Seattle won that game by one point, evening the all-time records between the two at 8-8.
And while I’m confident in the Patriots, there are plenty of reasons to fear the defending Super Bowl champs (besides their incomparable swagger and uniforms). They have an outstanding coach and motivator in Pete Carroll, probably the best in the business not named Belichick. They have Russell Wilson, the rare dual-threat signal-caller who can beat you with his arm and his legs, and a beastly running back in Marshawn Lynch. Seattle’s greatest strength, however, is its terrifying defense; a ridiculously athletic and physically punishing unit that can give even the greatest quarterbacks fits (see Rodgers, Aaron). It goes without saying that Brady and co. are going to have their hands full with the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
Should the Patriots lose, at least this time there will be no what-ifs and second-guessing, no wondering how Eli Manning managed to beat them twice in the Super Bowl. There will be no lamenting another heartbreaking loss to a clearly inferior team. This time, there will only be reluctant acceptance. Unlike Super Bowls past, I’m not expecting the Patriots to win. Like I said, I have no clue who will come out on top. It’s an honest-to-God toss-up.
New England and Seattle are about as evenly matched as two teams can be, and Sunday’s game will decide which one is better. What happens when an unstoppable force (New England’s offense) meets an immovable object (Seattle’s defense)? We’re about to find out.