Monday, February 2, 2015

Patriots Win Super Bowl XLIX: 28-24

The Patriots almost lost the Super Bowl with a dismal first half, but rallied in the fourth quarter to pull out an improbable 28-24 win over Seattle. The win gives them their fourth World Championship, and it solidifies the entire Brady/Belichick era as a dynasty. Next week... Duck Boats!!

The Pats offense dominated early, running 39 plays to Seattle's 19 in the first 29:30 of the game. But a Tom Brady interception at the goal line (a really bad throw), and a series of defensive breakdowns to end the second half, and the game was knotted 14-14 at intermission. That last drive by Seattle was the worst defense by the Pats since the first two drives of the Ravens playoff game.

And frankly the second half didn't start that well, either, with the Seahawks building a 10-point lead. But as they've done all season, the Patriots defense shut them down in the fourth quarter. And mostly as he's done all season, Brady engineered two terrific touchdown drives to take the lead. One last gasp from Seattle came up just short, as undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler picked off a pass to seal the win.

The Patriots offense couldn't run, even from heavy formations, so that put all the pressure on the quarterback. Brady was pretty sharp in the first half, but that one interception cost him big time, and it came when he was getting hit, yet again. He slogged through the third quarter, but those two touchdowns in the fourth stanza were the stuff of legend.

Brady did an amazing job stepping up through pressure to hit three big plays on those drives, and his control was picture-perfect on both. He ended the game with 37 of 50 (74%) for 328 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 INTs, 1 sack (8 yards), and a 101.1 QB Rating. But don't be fooled by the 1 sack, he got hit 7 other times, and came back fighting every time.

The offensive line was a shambles in the second and third quarters. The only success the Pats had was when Brady threw the ball quicker than the free pass rushers got to him. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer actually played well overall, forcing rushers past Brady or inside to help. But the interior three of center Bryan Stork and guards Dan Connolly Ryan Wendell got beaten every which way.

That poor inside play also hampered the running game. New England gained only 57 yards and averaged 2.7 ypc, and LeGarrette Blount led the team with 40, not that it mattered much. Shane Vereen was the star of that group, but in the passing game. He was the Pats leading receiver, with 11 catches for 64 important yards. He helped jump-start the offense in the fourth quarter, when it seemed nothing else was working.

In the two touchdown drives, Vereen caught five passes, converted two first downs, and had a seven-yard run. Without that production, there would be no shiny new Lombardi trophy this year.

The receivers took a physical pounding in this one, which is yet another reason you want more weapons on your side. Five Patriots had 4+ catches in the game, and Seattle's Cover 3 defense was confused at times and couldn't handle combination routes. In addition to Vereen's 11 catches, Julian Edelman (9 for 109, 1 touchdown), Rob Gronkowski (6 for 68 yards, 1 touchdown), Danny Amendola (5 for 48 yards, 1 touchdown), and Brandon LaFell (4 for 29 yards, 1 touchdown) all had multiple receptions.

Note that for the season, the Seattle defense allowed an average 80.4 QB rating, and Brady topped that by 20 points. And he couldn't have done that without the receivers. Edelman took some brutal hits and had zero drops. Gronkowski got beaten up play after play, but still managed to impact the game. And Amendola had just 15 catches after 14 games this season -- but finished strong, with 23 in the last five games.

The defensive secondary might have been the non-Brady star of the game. Their coverage was so good, Seattle didn't complete a pass until 5:36 remained in the second quarter. With the Seahawks staying away from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, Malcolm Butler turned out to be the star of the secondary. Butler had 3 passes defended, 3 tackles, and of course, the game-sealing interception. He is the first player from the University of West Alabama to make it to the Super Bowl, and he did a nice job putting a cherry on top of his rookie season!

Revis and Browner were also excellent in run-support, and safety Devin McCourty was flying all around the field, making tackles. On the bad side, Kyle Arrington got beaten early and often; he just couldn't match up to the size or speed of the receivers. Oh, and he added a 15-yard facemark penalty on Seattle's second touchdown drive. And Logan Ryan was targeted and on many completed passes. Also, Patrick Chung was oddly absent much of the game; not sure why, especially against a strong running team.

The defensive line did a decent job containing the Seahawks running attack. It must sound odd to hear that, when they gave up 162 yards and 5.6 ypc. But about half the time they hemmed in Marshawn Lynch and tackled him for very short gains. And when he went for longer runs, that was likely a linebacker missed assignment. Sealver Siliga (4 tackles), Vince Wilfork (2), and Alan Branch (3) were outstanding clogging up the middle, and for the most part the outside guys contained quarterback Russell Wilson.

The problem is, it was only for the most part. The last drive of the first half, was an 80-yard, 29-second nightmare. Wilson handed off the first play for 19 yards. And on the second play Chandler Jones over-pursued inside and Wilson took off past Jamie Collins for 17 more. Even though Jones and Rob Ninkovich had a sack and multiple tackles each (6 and 3, respectively), those crucial mistakes -- not holding the outside edge -- could have cost them the game.

The linebackers were hot-and-cold, and there also weren't that many of them. Most of the game was played with just Collins and Dont'a Hightower. (Sometimes that was to allow for five defensive linemen, and sometimes five defensive backs.) Collins led the team with 8 tackles, and he did a passable job, only letting Wilson escape once and missing 1 or 2 tackles. Hightower had 5 tackles, and had less impact on the overall game, though the Seahawks never threw to the short zones, where he could have made plays.

Special teams wasn't a huge factor, but the Patriots did outperform Seattle by a small margin. Edelman nabbed 27 return yards on punts, where the Seahawks only got 6. And the net average of our punter was 2 yards more than the opposition.

Also, Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs were all touchbacks, not a single return. But the Patriots got 49 total return yards on their kickoff returns. Again, not a big advantage, but in a game this close, everything counts.

The coaching matchup turned out a lot closer than I thought it would. Turns out it's tougher to adjust when the other team doesn't do anything fancy. So the Patriots brain-trust mattered less for in-game adjustments and more for getting guys to play their responsibilities.

One exception: defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. He's been amazing this year, stepping up his game when the team brought in better cornerbacks. The Patriots shut out the Seahawks in the fourth quarter. Of course, that didn't surprise you; I've been writing about it all year.

The Patriots allowed just 65 total points in the fourth quarter this season including just three total points in three playoff games. That's less than 3.5 points per game! And that didn't happen by accident. Josh McDaniels might get more press, but Patricia had a better year as the defensive helmsman. Maybe he should be the one getting head coaching consideration.

So where does that leave us? SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS, BABY!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots scored more points (14) in the fourth quarter than Seattle had given up in their previous eight fourth quarters (13).

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Tom Brady now has more playoff wins (4) when he throws 50+ passes than all other quarterbacks in NFL history combined (3). Think about that...

Non-Statistical Oddity of the Week: The three best Patriots corners in the Super Bowl were all with other teams last year: Revis (Tampa Bay), Browner (Seattle), and Butler (University of West Alabama).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I heard Seattle had this amazing fourth-quarter defense. I guess it's easier to stop Ryan Lindley than Tom Brady."

Keep the faith, and thanks for another fantastic year!

- Scott

PS. 15-4 & 3-0!

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