Super Bowl XLIX Sneak Peek: Can the Patriots Stop the Seahawks' Rushing Attack?
Super Bowl XLIX really has no favorite, which means we're in store for a good one.
The Patriots enter the big contest with just one meaningful loss since their disastrous late September Monday night game against the Chiefs, while the Seahawks are 12-1 over their last 13 games, counting the playoffs. As it stands, New England has a 9.49 nERD, a metric that measures the number of points a team would be expected to win by on a neutral field against a league-average opponent. Seattle's nERD score is 9.75.
Did we mention this was going to be close?
Every part of the New England Patriots is strong. The passing game, after struggling to get going through the first four weeks of the season, finished 2014 as the fifth-best passing unit according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. The running game, too, improved drastically as the season went forward, and even without starter Stevan Ridley for most of the year, the Pats' ground attack ranked sixth in the league in efficiency.
The most consistent area for New England this year has arguably been their secondary, which prevented 43.79 points (2.73 points per game) from being scored when compared to a league average pass defense in 2014. This was big for a rush defense that had early-season troubles, but one that's been gradually improving, going from 28th to 17th in the league over the second half of the regular season.
That rush defense needs to show up in the Super Bowl, because Seattle's strength on offense comes on the ground. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch combined to give the Seahawks the best and most efficient rushing offense we've seen this century, as both players ranked atop their position in Rushing Net Expected Points. There's no doubt they'll be pounding the rock on Sunday.
If they're unable to, they'll be relying on Wilson's arm, which wasn't as good in 2014 compared to his first two seasons in the league. Wilson ranked 15th in Passing Net Expected Points this year and, according to our metrics, the Bills, Giants and Lions all had better schedule-adjusted passing offenses than the Seahawks. Ouch.
Seattle's defense is a key reason they're playing in this game. The Packers' 22 points in the NFC Championship was the most points Seattle's given up since their Week 11 loss to Kansas City, which occurred on November 16th. The entire unit ranked as the third-best one in the league this season per Net Expected Points (Houston and Buffalo were better), while the secondary, led by Richard Sherman, continues to be nearly impossible to throw on.
There are a lot of ways this game could play out, but for New England, an early lead will be key, even more than usual. That will force Seattle away from their strength, putting the game on Russell Wilson's shoulders. Though the NFC Championship proved that that's not always a terrible thing, New England's secondary is far better than Green Bay's, and Wilson, over the course of the season, wasn't as efficient as he was last year through the air.
For Seattle, it's simple: run the football with Marshawn Lynch and hope to limit mistakes. It's a cliche, sure, but this running game is no joke. And to beat New England, having that balance is key.
It's going to be a great game. And while you watch, don't forget to follow along on numberFire Live!