NFL Conference Championship Wrap-up: See You in ArizonaDavid J. Phillip/AP
Seattle’s comeback victory over Green Bay on Sunday afternoon in the NFC Championship Game is why we watch football. It’s why we care about training camp cuts and mock drafts and advanced metrics, why we slog our way through preseason play-by-play and sit through the fourth quarter of blowouts, why we willingly give money to an entity so controlling that it threatened to eject Marshawn Lynch if he wore gold cleats onto the field.1 It’s why Packers fans will come back after having their hearts ripped out in the Pacific Northwest. Seahawks fans got something that might even be better than a Super Bowl: unbridled joy. A ring is the pinnacle for a player. The sort of earthshaking, exuberant, stunned happiness that comes with a fourth quarter like Sunday’s is the pinnacle of fandom.
Making the same sort of comeback in the Super Bowl might be more meaningful on paper, but there’s something to be said for this team winning this game in front of those fans in that stadium. In 10 years, when you think about this Seahawks era, the Wilson-Lynch-Sherman-Carroll teams, chances are that this will be the game you think of. When the announcers talk about Seattle’s home-field advantage in the years to come and how the Seahawks are virtually unbeatable at home, this is the game they’ll talk about, a comeback conjured seemingly out of thin air by noise.
Think about Russell Wilson. Cool, professional, unflappable Russell Wilson, the one whose personality I jokingly compared to a brand’s Twitter account in last week’s recap. Wilson won the Super Bowl and his postgame interview felt like a professional pitchman trying to sell you on how great it is to work hard and win a Super Bowl. On Sunday, Wilson won and wept profusely.2 Richard Sherman, the superhero cornerback who roared at the end of last year’s NFC championship win over the 49ers, played most of the fourth quarter with one usable arm and walked around afterward in agony. Byron Maxwell said the win “can’t be explained — it’s got to be God.” If winning the Super Bowl is like climbing Mt. Everest, this was like facing a deadly avalanche and surviving.
When Wilson had his fourth interception of the day bounce off Jermaine Kearse’s3 fingertips and into Morgan Burnett’s hands with 5:04 left, the Packers were up by 12 points and had the ball near midfield. ESPN Stats & Information estimates that Seattle’s chances of winning in that exact situation were a lowly 3.9 percent. Take the team with the best point differential in NFL post-merger history, the 2007 Patriots, and have it travel back in time to take on the worst team in post-merger history, the 1976 Buccaneers, in Tampa Bay. The Bucs’ chances of winning that game per the log5 method are 4.3 percent, narrowly better than where the Seahawks stood with a little more than five minutes to go.
Seattle needed just about everything to go right from that point forward, and as you already know, that’s exactly what happened. Outside of Lynch narrowly stepping out of bounds on a wheel route that otherwise would have been the first touchdown in Seattle’s comeback, the Seahawks suddenly exhibited an ability to cast miracles on demand. Of course, there was the expected onside kick, a 21.1 percent shot that went Seattle’s way in a spot where the game all but surely would have ended had the Packers recovered. More on that in a moment. There was the only 2-yard Hail Mary you’ll ever see, a two-point conversion that somehow fell into the waiting arms of Luke Willson. That play ended up saving Seattle’s bacon when the Packers were able to kick a field goal on their ensuing drive. With a defense riddled by injuries, it was a blessing that the Seahawks won the overtime coin toss, never giving the ball back to Aaron Rodgers & Co.
Amid the wondrous display of marvels is the more subtle question of how the Seahawks actually came back and won the dang football game. Obviously, staying away from turnovers helped, as five of Seattle’s first 11 meaningful possessions4 ended in giveaways. The Seahawks got back to moving the ball by relying heavily on the zone-read, a move that reaped instant dividends. Through the end of the third quarter, per ESPN Stats & Information, the Seahawks ran the read-option on seven running plays and generated a total of just 28 yards. In the fourth quarter and overtime, though, Seattle ran the ball 10 times with the read-option, picking up 93 yards and two touchdowns in the process.
Seattle also managed to get its receivers downfield for big plays, owing to a decline in what had been a dominant Green Bay pass rush. Mostly beating right guard J.R. Sweezy and backup right tackle Alvin Bailey, the Packers sacked Wilson four times and knocked him down on eight occasions before those fateful final three drives. Outside of a coverage sack for a 1-yard loss that immediately preceded the two game-winning throws, the Packers neither sacked nor knocked down Wilson during those three touchdown drives.
That might lead you to think the Packers were overly conservative and in prevent looks for most of those drives, but that really wasn’t the case. They rushed a minimum of four players on each of Wilson’s 10 pass plays (including the two-pointer), including a five-man blitz on the play that produced the coverage sack and a five-man rush on the final play of the game. The antithesis of a prevent defense is blitzing while playing man coverage across the board with zero safety help, and that Cover 0 approach is exactly what the Packers ran on the final play. Note Troy Aikman circling all the players Green Bay had at the line of scrimmage before the replay begins:
The Packers end up with a lot of players in the murky abyss between rushing the quarterback and playing meaningful roles in coverage on the game-winning score. They rush five at the snap, which the Seahawks are able to block with the seven men they have in to protect. Inside linebackers Sam Barrington (58) and A.J. Hawk (50) appear to be assigned to the combination of Lynch (in man coverage) and Wilson (as a spy), although it’s not clear who had which role. Neither attacked the line of scrimmage.
The weirdest assignment belongs to backup safety Sean Richardson (28), who was somehow on the field for the final snap of Green Bay’s season. My best guess is that Richardson is supposed to be in man coverage on Willson, but when he sees that Willson’s in to block, he doesn’t do anything. Richardson doesn’t approach the line of scrimmage in an attempt to rush the quarterback or get closer to the tight end in case Wilson checks off to Willson. (Sorry.) Richardson also doesn’t drop back into coverage to provide safety help on any routes.
Instead, Richardson just sort of shuffles his feet in place and stares into the backfield until Wilson gets off his bomb to Kearse, who beat Tramon Williams (38) inside at the snap and never let him catch up. Even if Richardson was executing his assignment, he contributed absolutely nothing to the play, and it would have been no different had the Packers gone out there with 10 men. Green Bay didn’t go down meekly. If anything, it went down by getting too aggressive at exactly the wrong time. It was reminiscent of Tim Tebow’s game-winning touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the 2011 playoffs, another play in which the defense sold out against the run with a Cover 0 look and got burned in man coverage.
If that moves us into the segment of the column where we start blaming Packers for the loss, let’s start with the easy scapegoat. Tight end Brandon Bostick is the first guy on the blame list, an anonymous backup who extended the game by failing to bring in Seattle’s onside kick. This isn’t as simple as a guy failing to come up with a bouncing ball. Bostick wasn’t actually supposed to try to catch the ball, but he peeled off his blocking assignment and leaped in front of a waiting Jordy Nelson, only to have the ball bounce off his hands and into the arms of Seahawks backup wide receiver Chris Matthews, who made a nifty catch.
This is a very easy argument to make. Bostick wasn’t supposed to try for the ball and he prevented an incredible wide receiver from having a shot at bringing in the ball. We’re also talking about a play in which we’re asking Bostick to make a split-second decision. If Bostick sees the ball coming his way, even if he’s supposed to block, what is he supposed to do? Duck? What if the ball had bounced a strange way and it came off him? If Bostick let it go by, Matthews was sufficiently close enough that he might have5 had a play on the football, and if the Seattle wide receiver would have nabbed it, we’d be criticizing Bostick even more for letting the ball go by when the game was on the line.
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I’m also not sure about the idea that Bostick should have left the ball for his more talented teammate. I don’t doubt that Nelson has some of the best hands in the league, but he’s hardly infallible, having dropped a pass earlier in the game. Catching a bouncing ball off grass involves the same skill set as catching passes in the air, but it’s not as obvious of a catch as is bringing in a throw from Rodgers. Bostick isn’t an accomplished receiver, but it’s not as if he were an offensive lineman or somebody who never even thinks about touching the football. And Matthews is proof positive you don’t need to be a great wide receiver to bring in a bouncing ball, as the former CFL player still hasn’t caught an NFL pass. Blame Bostick for not executing, but I find it tough to blame him for trying.
Bostick, of course, isn’t the only Packers player responsible for the loss, even if he blames himself. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had an impressive game, picking Wilson off twice and jumping a throw for what could have been a third pick, but he was lulled to sleep by Wilson’s eephus pitch on the two-point conversion and got caught between two minds. Clinton-Dix could have knocked the ball away while it was in the air or tried to hit the receiver as the ball arrived and somehow did neither. Given that the Packers were able to march down the field on their next possession and kick a field goal that would have otherwise won the contest, it ended up being a critical mistake.
Another Packers safety might have played a more meaningful role. Morgan Burnett may very well rue his decision to slide down with the football after Wilson’s fourth interception for the remainder of his life. It didn’t seem consequential in the moment because the Seahawks had shown no life on offense for virtually the entire game, but it was certainly a little premature, given that there were five minutes to go and the Seahawks had all of their timeouts. Burnett slid like his interception had sealed up the game and the only way to lose would be if he fumbled away the ball on a return, and that clearly was not the case.
Again, I can’t agree with the perception that Burnett solely somehow cost the Packers the game. Suggestions that he would have been able to return the interception for a touchdown are generous. The All-22 tape isn’t out yet, and Burnett would have had two blockers, but he was in the middle of the field and the Seahawks had Wilson and their entire offensive line 15 yards away. They would have likely been able to make a play.
Is it possible Burnett would have scored on a return? Sure. It’s also possible he would have fumbled. The most likely outcome is that he would’ve picked up about 10 yards of field position on the return. That has value, but it also wouldn’t have made the difference in the game. It was also about equivalent to what Tim Masthay did four plays later when he shanked a 30-yard punt, giving the Seahawks the ball on their own 31-yard line for the first of their three fateful possessions.
There’s another actor in play here, a Packers participant who played an enormous role in helping to blow the fantastic start that Seattle gifted Green Bay. His contributions are more subtle and aren’t tied to one specific event, but outside of Bostick, he may have played the biggest role in costing Green Bay the game. Even worse, while Bostick’s lapse was a mistake in execution made on the fly, these mistakes looked awful at the time and were made with time to spare. There’s only one way I can indicate how much I think he changed the outcome of this game …
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Thank You for Not Coaching
For whatever he offers as an offensive guru and a quarterback whisperer, Mike McCarthy is one of the worst in-game decision-makers in the league. It’s one thing to get fourth-and-1 decisions wrong, and McCarthy did in this game. But it was more than that. This is the same coach who ran a meaningless pre-halftime draw last year with Eddie Lacy, who promptly sprained his ankle. It’s the same McCarthy who threw his challenge flag on a fumble that would have been automatically reviewed. He kicks extra points to go down 12, uses his timeouts after the two-minute warning, and even that’s too much to ask sometimes.
None of those infractions is bad enough on its own to call McCarthy a bad tactician, but each are hints suggesting he leaves a lot to be desired. Sunday will go down as the proof that he’s hopelessly lost when it comes to game management. Blessed with a bevy of Seattle turnovers that yielded incredible field position, an effective running game, and Aaron freaking Rodgers, McCarthy managed to coach his way into 22 points and a heartbreaking defeat. Let’s review:
• McCarthy kicks an 18-yard field goal to open the scoring. His original sin was unforgivable. After John Kuhn nearly punched the ball in on second down, Eddie Lacy was stuffed on third down, leaving the Packers with fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The numbers here are very clear, and every coach who gets this question wrong in his job interview should not be trusted to run an NFL team. McCarthy is costing his team 1.3 points by kicking a field goal here. Those points come in handy.
The arguments you’ll hear in response to the logic are almost all bunk. Yes, the Packers had been stuffed on the previous two plays. If a team throws two incomplete passes on first-and-10 and second-and-10, should it punt on third-and-10? Yes, Seattle has a great defense and it was going to be a low-scoring game. That just makes having seven points that much more valuable. Yes, the Packers were playing on the road. That doesn’t mean they should take the points; winning home teams from 2010 to 2014 did so while scoring an average of 29 points per game, while road winners scored … 28. You need the points either way. And for whatever argument that you need to come away with points after previously going into Seattle territory without scoring (you’re going to win 3-0?), the Packers did just that and lost.
• McCarthy kicks a 19-yard field goal to go up 6-0. In fact, McCarthy loved taking the points so much that he did it twice! After Doug Baldwin fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, the Packers took over at the Seattle 23-yard line and promptly ran the ball three times for 17 yards, a move that apparently afforded McCarthy no proof that they might have been able to get 1 yard when they needed it. After a checkdown against a big Seattle blitz moved the ball to the 1.5-yard line, McCarthy again kicked a field goal, again costing his team 1.3 points. That’s 2.6 points, which is almost as much as a field goal, and if anybody knows how valuable field goals are, it’s Mike McCarthy.
• McCarthy runs the ball on third-and-3 just outside the red zone. In context with the two previous decisions, this is just about indefensible. Yes, the defense isn’t lined up the same way on the 24-yard line that it would be from the 1-foot line. He still sent his team out in a full-house backfield and had it run the ball on third-and-3, almost surely to avoid the possibility of a turnover or a sack that would have pushed it out of field goal range. Remember: McCarthy’s quarterback is Aaron freaking Rodgers.
Lacy gained 2 yards. You’ll never guess what happened next …
• McCarthy kicks a field goal on fourth-and-1. The New York Times‘s 4th Down Bot actually suggests this is the correct call, noting that a field goal try improves Green Bay’s win expectancy from 90 percent to 92 percent. That’s fine. I still want to understand how third-and-3 from the 24-yard line is a good time to run the ball while fourth-and-1 from the 22-yard line is not. Or, you know, you could put the ball in the hands of the guy who is going to win league MVP and trust him to get a yard.
• McCarthy gets conservative in the fourth quarter. Green Bay took two crucial three-and-outs in the fourth quarter that left the door open for Seattle’s comeback. McCarthy’s conservative calls reportedly irked Rodgers, who — just for reference — is the best quarterback in football and threw the ball once on those two possessions.
The first was the more egregious of the two. Taking over on their own 13-yard line with 6:53 to go after a 57-yard drive that led to a field goal on their last possession, the Packers took over and got ultra-conservative. They ran twice with James Starks before calling for a hitch route to an isolated Andrew Quarless versus linebacker K.J. Wright on third-and-4, which fell incomplete under some pressure from Wright. It was the same play call that won Green Bay the game against Miami late in the fourth quarter, but that was versus abysmal coverage linebacker Philip Wheeler; Wright is one of the better linebackers in football.
The second drive was mostly circumstance. After the interception, the Packers ran the ball with Lacy for a loss of 4, at which point the Seahawks called timeout. I can understand wanting to run clock on the next play, which went for a loss of 2 and another timeout. At third-and-16 and with the clock stopped, a third running play seems reasonable enough.
What was bizarre, then, was McCarthy’s comment after the game that he was trying to hit a particular number. “The one statistic I had as far as a target to hit,” McCarthy said, “was 20 rushing attempts in the second half. I felt that would be a very important target to hit for our offense.”
I can’t fathom how coaches still say stuff like that in 2014. It’s been clear for 11 years now that teams run the ball a lot when they’re winning as opposed to winning when they run the ball. That’s even more true in the pass-happy days of 2014 and it goes even further when Aaron Rodgers is the person who plays quarterback for the team you coach. As Mike Tanier once noted, if teams that kneel at the end of games almost always do so in victory formation, why not just kneel to win?
None of the cases when McCarthy kicked field goals was particularly wonky or would have left him subject to serious derision if he had gone for it and failed. He wasn’t going for it on fourth-and-short on his side of the field or anything. He wasn’t alone in making mistakes in this game; while Pete Carroll pulled out a fake field goal6 in a desperate spot to get a touchdown and make it 16-6, he didn’t go for two points with about 20 minutes left in a move that would have made it a one-score game. Instead, when the Seahawks scored a touchdown later in the game, the score was 19-13 and they had no way of coming within a field goal, whereas they would have by attempting and converting the earlier two-pointer.
Instead, McCarthy made basic mistakes under anecdotal ideas that don’t hold up to scrutiny. In a playoff where the likes of Carroll, Bill Belichick, and Jason Garrett have been rewarded for their aggressive decisions, McCarthy played it safe and ended up inadvertently aiding his team’s trip out of the playoffs. McCarthy took the points and ended up getting taken.
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What was remarkable about New England’s blowout victory over Indianapolis was how similar it was to the first three games between Andrew Luck and Tom Brady. The Patriots ran all over the Colts in a 45-7 victory, with LeGarrette Blount picking up 148 yards on 30 carries in a three-touchdown performance. After the Colts delivered arguably their finest performance in the Pagano era in last week’s road victory over the Broncos, the players surrounding Luck failed to live up to that standard in Sunday’s loss. And when we all expected the Patriots to pull out a new strategic gambit to try to stay ahead of the Colts, Belichick stuck with what had worked in games past and found that it wasn’t broken.
Some of the little nuances were different, of course. The Patriots stayed with their defensive approach of keeping Darrelle Revis mostly on Reggie Wayne, who finished what might have been his final game with the Colts with zero catches on two targets. Kyle Arrington spent most of the game on star Indianapolis wideout T.Y. Hilton with help from Devin McCourty, who chipped in over the top and when Arrington would get caught up on the various picks in Indianapolis’s crossing routes. Hilton had a gorgeous 36-yard catch to go with five incompletions.
The subtle change, then, saw the Patriots insert Logan Ryan into the lineup as a fourth cornerback while leaving Patrick Chung on the bench and moving Brandon Browner into the box in a linebackeresque role somewhat similar to how the Cardinals use Deone Bucannon. New England stayed in the nickel for most of the game, even playing 265-pound Chandler Jones as a 5-technique end. It spoke to how unafraid Belichick was of Indianapolis’s running game, and while the Colts managed to run for the same 4.4 yards per carry as the Patriots, the shift allowed the Patriots to play better coverage across the board without giving up too much against the run.
If any game single-handedly rewarded New England’s emphasis on investing heavily at cornerback over the offseason, it was this one. After years of getting by with the likes of Alfonzo Dennard and Sterling Moore in key roles, it was impossible to ignore how impressive the New England secondary was Sunday night, especially during a game in which the Patriots weren’t able to sack Luck. While Indy’s star quarterback didn’t deliver his best performance, it was impossible to ignore just how closely his receivers were covered throughout the game. Hilton’s one reception required a spectacular catch and a throw into a narrow window. Revis, doubted by some as recently as last week, had an interception.
Ten of Luck’s completions on a dismal 12-for-33 day came to his running backs and tight ends, evidence of an early game plan that seemed to revolve around attacking Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, both in the zone coverage he often occupies over the middle of the field and occasionally in man coverage. Colts running back Dan Herron had Collins beat up the sideline for what should have been a touchdown, only for Herron to drop Luck’s pass. Adam Vinatieri would end that drive with a missed field goal, and the Patriots used the ensuing short field to go up 14-0. It’s hard to say that an early Colts touchdown would have meaningfully changed the game given the shellacking to come, but it couldn’t have hurt their chances. Collins, one of the league’s best linebackers this season, would later redeem his near mistake with a second-half interception.
The Colts made their own changes on defense, but they didn’t seem to make much of a difference. One of the league’s worst defenses against tight ends this season, the Colts made stopping Rob Gronkowski a priority, doubling him with a linebacker and a safety on some plays and lining up star cornerback Vontae Davis on others. They mostly succeeded in the battle — Gronk caught three of the eight passes thrown to him for 28 yards and a touchdown, albeit with an interception — but lost the war.
Too often, Brady was left with comfortable matchups to exploit for easy completions. It was shocking to see how easy it was for the Patriots to get Julian Edelman matched up against a linebacker in the slot or on shallow drag or slant routes against soft zone coverage. There’s no good explanation for why the Colts had their linebackers drop deeper than the sticks in the red zone on a third-and-10 and then allowed Edelman a free release on a slant for an easy conversion. Indy somehow managed to play a conservative coverage scheme and still get burned deep on a number of occasions, with only a pair of Brady underthrows holding back long touchdown passes to Shane Vereen (covered by Jerrell Freeman) and Edelman (who ran right by the badly fooled LaRon Landry on a play-action pass).
No one player was responsible for Indianapolis’s loss, but two absent contributors loomed large in thinking about why the Colts fell. After general manager Ryan Grigson was handed the best selection he’ll ever make by drafting Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in his first draft, he appears to have wasted his two subsequent first-round picks on nonfactors. 2013 first-rounder Bjoern Werner was a healthy scratch Sunday, with Titans cast-off Shaun Phillips preferred as a pass-rusher. Their 2014 first-rounder was sent to Cleveland for Trent Richardson, who was a healthy scratch last week and would likely have been one again if he weren’t away from the team because of a family emergency.
Grigson has also invested heavily in improving Indianapolis’s run defense in free agency, in part thanks to the disastrous games against New England, and those moves didn’t pay off Sunday. A variety of free-agent safeties, notably Landry, missed a variety of ankle tackles on Blount. Erik Walden, brought in as an edge-setting outside linebacker, was part of a Colts defense that repeatedly overpursued and lost contain, allowing the bruising Blount to cut back against the grain for extra yardage. Ends Ricky Jean-Francois and Arthur Jones did little at the point of attack. Grigson will go into his fourth offseason with the same shopping list he’s had for each of the past three years, one built around improving in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
It’s hard not to again contrast Indianapolis’s philosophy to what the Patriots have done under Belichick, especially at running back. While the Colts dealt a first-round pick to acquire the embattled Richardson, the Patriots have repeatedly treated running backs as a fungible commodity and come away no worse for wear. After undrafted free agent Jonas Gray rocked the Colts for 201 yards on 37 carries during the regular season, Sunday marked Blount’s return to the Colts-stomping fold.
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This was Blount’s second monstrous playoff game, coming just months after he quit on the Steelers and went through league waivers unclaimed. The Patriots have now acquired Blount twice, paying him close to the league minimum each time, for the grand sum of a seventh-round pick and Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps.7 All he’s done is post two of the 10 best playoff running back performances since 1990 in terms of fantasy points, both against these Colts.
Brady chipped in with a woozy 9-yard scramble past Freeman and a pair of sneaks for first downs. I wondered on Twitter during the game whether the practice of running backs pushing Brady forward on sneaks was legal, noting that the NFL rulebook says offensive players can assist a runner only by “blocking for him,” but the league has an exception suggesting that it’s a legal play. Approved Ruling 12.2 notes that a player can push his teammate forward if he is stopped. Brady, an incredible 105-of-129 on runs with a yard to go in his career, hardly needs the help.
Unlike last week, there were no schematic concerns or allegations of the Patriots cheating with their four-offensive-lineman sets. The Patriots rolled out the tactic a couple of times, only for Brady to be sacked when Ryan Wendell was overwhelmed on a four-lineman play. They were far more successful using Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive lineman, in a role similar to the one he played when these teams met earlier this season. Fleming reported in as a sixth offensive lineman 23 times Sunday. The Patriots used that tactic to a logical conclusion by bringing in Fleming as a sixth lineman but having left tackle Nate Solder report as eligible. With the Colts either not listening or not properly adjusting amid a stream of plays in which Fleming was the eligible receiver, it was Solder, the former tight end, who leaked off the line of scrimmage and caught a pass for an easy touchdown.
Instead, allegations broke early Monday morning that the Patriots were being investigated for deflating footballs during Sunday’s game. Deflated footballs are easier to grip, throw, and catch, so it’s hard to figure why the Patriots — who provide 36 footballs as the home team — would deliberately deflate footballs after kickoff if they were going to adopt a run-heavy approach. If the allegations against the Patriots are eventually found to be true, Indianapolis columnist Bob Kravitz notes that the penalty would be a loss of draft picks as opposed to any replay of Sunday’s game, but it will be a huge boon for the cottage industry of people who make Spygate comments in 2015.
Even the most ardent Colts fan, though, would have to stretch to believe that a few underinflated footballs cost Indianapolis the game. Indy will go back to the drawing board and attempt to come up with another game plan for stopping the Patriots, who they will play yet again during the 2015 regular season. New England will return to the scene of its most memorable failure, having last made the trip to Glendale, Arizona, for Super Bowl XLII seven years ago. Brady, Vince Wilfork, and Stephen Gostkowski are the only Patriots still left from that game, but everyone on the roster will remember what happened. Overcoming a slow start and a blowout loss to the Chiefs this year was tough. Getting past the specter of the Helmet Catch to win a fourth Super Bowl for the Brady-Belichick combination? That might be even tougher.