Four PLAYERS to watch
LeGarrette Blount (#29)
Patriots • running back
When a team has shown four- and six-lineman formations with players often reporting as eligible or ineligible, it’s difficult to predict what it will do with two weeks to prepare. Blount, a Steelers midseason castoff, would be a typically unusual Patriots success story if he were to dominate on Sunday. Seattle has tremendous defensive speed. Blount’s size — 6 feet, 250 pounds, not including the chip on his shoulder — could negate that speed if the Patriots are able to use multiple-tight end sets and run the ball straight ahead.
Rob Ninkovich (#50)
Patriots • defensive end
One of the more frustrating elements for a defense when it faces Seattle’s offense is doing everything with textbook precision right up to the point where Russell Wilson slithers out of the pocket for the first down. New England’s defense is underrated, but it’s also very disciplined. Ninkovich is a playmaker with veteran savvy. He and Chandler Jones must set and maintain the edge of the defense to keep Wilson from extending drives.
Luke Willson (#82)
Seahawks • tight end
We shouldn’t assume anything, but, well, we’ll assume the Patriots will use cornerback Darrelle Revis to shut down receiver Doug Baldwin. With no Percy Harvin to stretch the field horizontally (remember those early jet sweeps from Super Bowl XLVIII?), Seattle could turn to Willson, a sort of hidden but definitely capable receiving tight end, as a poor man’s X-factor. He had only two catches for 11 yards in the NFC title game but averaged 16.5 yards with three TDs on 22 regular-season catches.
Kevin Williams (#94)
Seahawks • nose tackle
There is an enormous amount of pressure on Kevin Williams, who has been playing out of position at nose tackle since standout Brendan Mebane went down with a season-ending injury after nine games. With Seattle thin at defensive tackle and loaded in the secondary, you can bet on Patriots coach Bill Belichick testing Seattle’s interior defensive line with the powerful LeGarrette Blount. The primary weight of rejecting that approach falls on Williams, the former Vikings five-time All-Pro.
Three keys to the game
Can Wilson be contained?
Before their colossal meltdown, the Packers were poised to win the NFC title game in part because they were able to keep Russell Wilson (pictured), the maddeningly elusive quarterback, from hurting them with his legs. The Patriots must establish the edges of their defense, maintain their gap integrity, as coaches like to say, and not let Wilson get all of those cheap first downs that destroy defensive momentum. It’s not easy to do because Wilson runs with extreme confidence that screams that he knows he’s not going to be tackled.
Can Seattle ground Gronk?
Much has been made about Seattle surrendering 11 of their 17 regular-season touchdowns to tight ends. But seven of those came in the first six weeks. As big safety Kam Chancellor returned to health, tight ends have caught only four touchdown passes in the past 12 games, including none in the playoffs. Chancellor will be a key figure in trying to slow Rob Gronkowski, the league’s most dangerous tight end. The Patriots will move him around and could try to isolate him on nickel back Jeremy Lane.
Who will be more physical? This was a key to last year’s game, and it was answered immediately when Seattle’s defense began pressuring and beating up Peyton Manning, mugging receivers and slamming running backs en route to a 43-8 thumping. The Patriots have a chance to flip the script this year with the physical mismatch opportunities that Gronkowski presents and the straight-ahead power that Blount brings. Defensively, New England also has the chance to be the more physical team, starting with giant nose tackle Vince Wilfork (pictured) setting the tone up front.
Two bold predictions
Jim Souhan: Patriots 26, Seahawks 21
I’ve liked the Seahawks’ chances of defending ever since I left their locker room in New Jersey last year. First I thought the Broncos posed their biggest threat. Then internal conflicts seemed to be their enemy. Now their final obstacle is New England, and I have to go against my gut and go with my head. When the Patriots can run the ball and stop the pass, they win. Sunday they win. LeGarrette Blount will run for 100-plus and a couple of scores and win the MVP award.
Mark Craig: Patriots 20, Seahawks 17 (OT)
Funny you would say that, Jim, because my head is screaming, “Go with Seattle’s historically great defense, you dummy!” But my gut feels that Belichick and Brady have the offensive mismatches and the cornerbacks necessary to avoid going 0-3 in their past three Super Bowls. A healthy Gronkowski, which the Patriots didn’t have three years ago on this stage, and the power of Blount give Brady what he needs. Defensively, Revis is the missing piece that hindered Belichick in recent Super Bowls.
One unsung hero
Brandon LaFell (#19) Patriots • wide receiver
LaFell is a 6-2 receiver with speed, but he sits somewhere far down the pecking order when one begins naming New England’s key offensive players. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, LeGarrette Blount and Julian Edelman come to mind long before LaFell. But if Seattle focuses too hard on Gronk or Edelman, look out for LaFell, who caught 74 passes with seven TDs during the regular season and has nine more for 90 yards and a TD in the postseason.