Barring some Belichikian substitution mind games, there will be 22 guys on the field at any given time on Sunday. While who wins Super Bowl XLIX should come down to what offensive, defensive, and special teams units play the best, a number of guys — both because of matchups and because of, well, who they are — will play an outsize role in deciding whether the Seahawks get their second Lombardi in a row or Brady and Belichick get to raise the trophy for a fourth time. So, with that in mind, we took a look at the 22 players — and ranked them — most likely to affect the game in Glendale.
22. Darrelle Revis
21. Richard Sherman
There’s no version of this list that doesn’t include maybe the two best cornerbacks in football, but as Bill Barnwell mentioned on yesterday’s Grantland NFL Podcast, this is a game in which neither one really has a juicy matchup worth watching. Revis will probably get thrown on Doug Baldwin, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots sacrifice Brandon LaFell at Sherman’s altar in hopes of getting the ball to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Although, now that I say this, each guy will probably come away with two picks and Sherman will snag the MVP.
20. Jermaine Kearse
If Baldwin does end up spending the night on Revis Island, that leaves Kearse as Seattle’s best option in the passing game. That could pose a bit of a problem for the Seahawks, as Kearse is more of a downfield threat, operating along the boundaries. New England gave up the 12th-lowest QBR on throws of 20 yards or more, so Kearse’s strengths might play right into Brandon Browner’s hands.
19. Bryan Stork
18. Max Unger
Both of these teams have spent some of the season playing musical centers. For the Patriots, it was a matter of finding the right five-man combination for an offensive line that stumbled throughout the early part of the year. By eventually settling on Stork, a rookie who was a big piece of Florida State’s 2013 national championship team, New England created some stability up front and kept Tom Brady on his feet. Stork missed the AFC Championship Game against Indy, and it didn’t matter much, but from both a run-defense and pass-rushing perspective, the Seahawks present an entirely different challenge. Getting Stork back1 means Ryan Wendell can slide back to right guard, which should help the Pats pass protection.
He’s back in practice and looks on track to play.
Stork’s counterpart, Unger, missed multiple stretches of time due to injury this season, and it’s easy to overlook just what his absence does to the Seattle running game. On the year, Seattle averaged 3.1 yards before contact — the fifth-best mark in football. But with a healthy Unger over the first five weeks, Seattle put up 3.81 YBCT/run, comfortably the best in the league. From Week 6 through 9, with Unger on the sideline, that number fell to 2.48 — 15th overall. With Unger back in the lineup for the next two weeks, it jumped back to 4.55 — and only the Vikings were better. Then, when Unger missed the next six games, Seattle dropped back down to 2.44 — worse than league average. You get the idea. If the Seahawks get the running game going against New England, it won’t just be because of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.
17. Cliff Avril
16. Nate Solder
This is one of the matchups that could swing the game. Avril is a year removed from roasting Orlando Franklin in the Super Bowl and emerging as one of the central reasons that Seattle hammered the Broncos. Seattle’s pass rush isn’t quite what it was last season, as the Chris Clemons–Avril–Michael Bennett trio is scarier than anything Seattle can trot out now. But even as the Seahawks’ primary pass-rushing threat, Avril can still be a force.
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He’ll probably be lined up on the right side more than the left, which means it’ll be Solder’s job to slow Avril down. Solder’s fourth season hasn’t been his best; he’s been uneven, especially during a couple rough outings when New England’s offense was sputtering early on. If the Avril-Solder battle ends up being a consistent win for Seattle, New England’s pass-happy game plan is going to run into some problems.
15. LeGarrette Blount
14. Kevin Williams
The conventional wisdom about how to attack Seattle’s defense has generally made sense: Avoid the secondary and run the ball if you want to win. But that may not be the best approach this year. Seattle actually finished with a better run-defense DVOA (second) than pass-defense DVOA (third). It’s an almost-negligible difference, obviously, but the point stands: It’s not easy to run on the Seahawks.
I expect the Patriots to come out throwing, but not quite to the level they did when these two teams last played. Brady isn’t likely to throw 58 passes, and I’d assume New England will split the difference between their game plans for the Ravens and Colts.
When New England does run the ball, Williams will be sitting smack dab in the middle of the Seahawks defense. Williams will probably never get his due for the player he was in Minnesota; the Vikings just didn’t win enough and he didn’t play a position where dominance gets easily recognized. At 34 years old, he’s not that player anymore, but he gives Seattle a reliable presence at defensive tackle, especially with Brandon Mebane lost for the season. Expect him and Blount to butt heads more than a couple times on Sunday.
13. Bobby Wagner
When the Seahawks struggled in the middle of the year, not enough was made about the effect of Wagner’s absence. For the season, the Seahawks allowed 2.15 yards per carry before contact — the third-best mark in football. In the five games Wagner missed, from Weeks 7 to 11, that number was 2.77 — the ninth-worst mark in the league. On a defense with Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor, there’s only so much adulation to go around, but Wagner is one of the best middle linebackers in football.
12. Byron Maxwell
Maxwell has the (sort of) unfortunate distinction of being the Legion of Boom’s Ringo, but he’s no slouch. Seattle was the sixth-best team in the league against no. 2 receivers by DVOA. Although, unsurprisingly, opponents do have a little more success when throwing Maxwell’s way. On throws outside the left numbers, where Maxwell does most of his work, teams finished this season with a 64.7 QBR, compared to the 44.6 mark the Seahawks gave up overall.
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It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Julian Edelman spend the majority of his Sunday on the New England offense’s left. He’s the type of quick, change-of-direction receiver that has troubled Maxwell from time to time.
11. Michael Bennett
On a Seattle defense where star players are tasked with doing one specific job and doing it phenomenally, Bennett is a bit of an exception. He does a little bit of everything. He plays defensive end. He plays defensive tackle. He’s an excellent run defender, and he’s a matchup advantage whenever he bumps inside as a pass-rusher.
Seattle’s pass rush should be a major factor Sunday, and whether or not Bennett can take advantage of New England’s guards, Dan Connolly and Wendell, will have a big impact on the outcome of the game. The Seahawks are best when they’re getting outside pressure from Avril & Co. while Bennett pushes the pocket from within.
10. Kam Chancellor
I spilled a lot of words on Kam this week. His ability to patrol the middle of the field and make guys like Edelman think twice is going to matter, but the importance of the Chancellor-Gronkowski matchup is being a bit overstated. In Seattle’s Cover 3, Chancellor plays the hooks of Seattle’s defense almost as if he’s a linebacker, while Gronk does much of his damage farther down the field. It’s likely that we’ll see Chancellor manned up on Gronk from time to time, but that’s not how the Seahawks typically operate.
9. Julian Edelman
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The Patriots need to get something from a non-Gronkowski receiver, and Edelman is clearly the top option to fill that spot. Where he lines up early should provide some insight on how New England wants to attack Seattle. Based on the Seahawks’ personnel, it would make sense to have Edelman work against Maxwell and see what’s available on in-breaking routes, but so much of Edelman’s value comes from just how many different ways the Patriots can use him.
8. Vince Wilfork
Eleven years on, all 325 pounds of Wilfork are still in the middle of the Patriots defense. Slowing down Marshawn Lynch has to be New England’s no. 1 priority come Sunday, and that starts with Wilfork. Even at this stage in his career, Wilfork is an absolute nightmare of a run defender. It’s no surprise that with him back in the lineup this year, the Patriots moved up from 27th to 14th in run-defense DVOA.
8. Rob Ninkovich
Ninkovich has long been a Barnwell favorite, and with good reason. He’s the latest member of the long-running tradition of Patriots, like Mike Vrabel and Troy Brown, who can do a bunch of weird stuff all at once. Listening to Ninkovich this week, words like “keys” and “assignment” have come up again and again. As the left defensive end/linebacker/whatever in the Patriots’ defense, setting the edge and holding up against the run forms a good portion of Ninkovich’s responsibilities, and that will be as important as ever come Sunday.
Keeping Russell Wilson from getting outside — both as a scrambler and on option plays — is sure to be an emphasis of the Patriots defensive game plan, and Ninkovich is at the center of that. Asked about defending the option today, Ninkovich reiterated that it all comes down to discipline. “Really, that play is all technique,” he said. “It’s all about reading your keys and where your eyes are looking. How you play that play really goes back to the fundamentals of football.” There are plenty of more explosive defensive ends around the league, but he’s the perfect sort of player for what the Patriots will want to do on Sunday.
6. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower
Is this cheating? Yes, definitely, but both Collins and Hightower will have the unenviable task of worrying about Lynch and Wilson running the ball. The good news for the Pats is that both of these guys are having career years. Collins and Hightower’s growth is one of the driving reasons behind New England’s defensive resurgence.
5. Earl Thomas
Thomas is the most important player on the Seahawks defense, and that should be on display in a big way against the Patriots. New England loves exploiting the middle of the field, and considering the players they have at receiver and the ones Seattle has on the outside, it’s a good bet that they’ll be looking to do the same in Glendale.
New England’s best down-the-field option is still that throw to Gronkowski in the seam, and the responsibility for stopping it falls on Thomas. If the Patriots come up empty trying to establish Gronk as their big-play option, they become a team forced to rely on moderate gains to move the ball. And the Seahawks chew those plays up better than any defense in the league. The idea of the Gronk-Chancellor collisions is enticing, but the Gronk-Thomas matchup is much more likely to swing that side of the ball.
4. Russell Wilson
It’s hard to leave a quarterback out of the top five in this sort of exercise. No, the Seahawks aren’t a team built on their passing game, as Seattle threw 22 fewer passes than any other team in the league this season. But Wilson’s value to this offense doesn’t only come from his passing ability. His effectiveness as a scrambler is frightening, but what he provides as an option threat is even scarier. Seattle’s run game was at its best against the Packers when the threat of Wilson keeping the ball started coming into play, and this week should be no different.
3. Rob Gronkowski
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It’s impossible to overstate how good this guy is. He’s the centerpiece of the Patriots’ passing game, which was the fifth best in football this season by DVOA. Based on Seattle’s performance against different types of receivers this year, it’s not hard to imagine Gronk leaving this game with something approaching 15 targets. The Seahawks hung around the top five in DVOA against every type of wide receiver, but they finished the year just 18th in DVOA against tight ends. Not having Wagner and a healthy Chancellor for stretches lends to that, but either way, we’re looking at a combination of a defense that does (relatively) worse against tight ends and the best tight end in football. Sunday should be a Gronk-filled day.
2. Marshawn Lynch
I’ll be glad when we finally just get to watch Lynch play football. Barnwell and I had a long discussion about Lynch on the Grantland NFL Podcast this week, but just to rehash: It’s hard to imagine a running back being more vital to his offense’s success than Lynch has been to the Seahawks. Separating a running back’s production from his offensive line isn’t easy, but with Lynch it’s right there in the numbers. The Seahawks averaged 2.25 yards after contact per rush this year, almost 0.2 yards better than any other team in football. Lynch has become an impossible-to-bring-down monster who completely dictates Seattle’s offense. The Seahawks led the league in rushing DVOA – and were one of the best teams ever by that metric — because of what they get from Lynch.
1. Tom Brady
This seems too easy, but I’m not sure there’s another legitimate option. The Patriots are a passing team and have been for some time now. The Seahawks aren’t like the Colts, a great pass defense with a shoddy run defense that the Patriots can easily take advantage of. New England is going to win or lose on Sunday based on how well it can move the ball through the air, and more than Gronkowski or anyone else, that comes down to Brady. In his chase for ring no. 4, Brady is the guy New England will need most.