Lost and Found: Seeking a Super Bowl Weakness

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Even the best teams in football have weaknesses. The Patriots and Seahawks each lost four games this season, with New England starting 2-2 and Seattle making it all the way to 3-3 before catching fire. These two teams are a combined 22-4 over their last 26 games, so it’s been a while since their flaws were laid bare in losses. One of them, obviously, will have to lose this Sunday.

With just days to go before the Super Bowl, let’s look at those losses to see exactly what happened and figure out whether either team will be able to emulate one of the game plans that beat their opponent during the regular season. While there’s no exact comparison between the Patriots or Seahawks and any of the teams that beat them earlier this year, there might be some component of performance that fits right into New England’s or Seattle’s wheelhouse.

Seattle’s Losses

Week 2: San Diego 30, Seattle 21

What Happened: Philip Rivers delivered an impeccably accurate day against the league’s best pass defense, going 28-of-37 for 284 yards and three touchdowns. He even targeted forbidden cornerback Richard Sherman, with the Chargers running pick plays and route combinations designed to take advantage of Sherman’s aggressiveness. Antonio Gates, running an endless array of drag routes and hitches, caught all seven (OK, maybe not endless) passes thrown to him for 96 yards and three touchdowns. The Seattle pass rush barely buzzed Rivers, who was sacked once.

The Seahawks produced just 288 yards from scrimmage in a game in which they barely touched the football; they ran just 30 offensive plays, as the Chargers went 10-of-17 on third down. Percy Harvin fumbled away a kickoff, with the Chargers recovering four of five fumbles that hit the ground. While Harvin produced a 51-yard touchdown on a pitch, Marshawn Lynch carried the ball just six times and the Seahawks went 3-for-9 on third and fourth down.

Can the Patriots Do That? Yes and no. This is the exact sort of game Seattle fans should worry about, one in which the Seahawks are up against an incredibly accurate quarterback who is capable of finding the small crevices and holes in their defense with safe, concise passes. It’s the game plan New England ran against Seattle the last time they played, when Tom Brady threw 58 passes.

I’m more skeptical that New England can emulate San Diego’s work on defense. The Seahawks were admittedly a little obsessed with working Harvin into their scheme early in the season, and while he delivered the long rushing score, Seattle has been better by merely handing the ball to Lynch and letting him do his thing. Lynch isn’t going to finish the Super Bowl with six carries unless he gets hurt. New England was exactly middle-of-the-pack — 16th in the league — in stopping teams from converting third downs, so while the Patriots might pick up a lot of third downs on offense, I don’t think it’s likely they’ll have similar success when Seattle has the ball.

Week 6: Dallas 30, Seattle 23

What Happened: Despite not coming away with any of the game’s three fumbles, the Cowboys did just enough in the trenches to finish with the victory. Dallas naturally committed to its running attack, with DeMarco Murray carrying the ball 28 times for a respectable 115 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. The Cowboys still found themselves in long third downs, with an average of 7.8 yards to go, but Tony Romo & Co. managed to convert 10 of 17 times. And when they did get into the red zone, they succeeded, scoring three touchdowns and a late field goal on their four trips inside the Seattle 20. Also, the Cowboys held the ball for nearly 38 minutes.

This was another game in which the Seahawks got behind on offense with their throws to Harvin and didn’t get the ball to Lynch nearly frequently enough. Harvin, playing his last game with the team, was given four targets and three carries, and they generated a combined minus-1 yard. Lynch carried the ball just 10 times, with a 32-yard run making up the bulk of his 61 yards. Dallas’s secondary also delivered one of its best games of the season, knocking away nine of Russell Wilson’s 28 passes on a day when the Seattle star went just 14-of-28 for 126 yards.

Can the Patriots Do That? Not really. The Patriots can stay on the field forever on offense, as they converted 44.3 percent of their third downs this year, the sixth-best rate in the league, but that’s not going to come with their running game. They ran all over the Colts, but that was Indianapolis. Seattle’s run defense is far better. New England was also the league’s sixth-best red zone offense this season, but it struggled mightily against Seattle the last time these teams played; that was 2012, but I still don’t see the Patriots having a ton of great matchups to work with in the red zone.

Again, the Seahawks aren’t going to get away from giving the ball to Lynch. The one thing the Patriots could emulate here is knocking away a lot of Wilson’s passes; if anybody can stay in coverage for five or six seconds and make plays on improvising receivers, it’s this veteran New England secondary.

Week 7: St. Louis 28, Seattle 26

What Happened: The Rams delivered one of the greatest single-game special-teams performances you’ll ever see, including a 75-yard kick return from Benny Cunningham, a trick play for a 90-yard punt return by Stedman Bailey, and a game-sealing fake punt from Johnny Hekker that should have earned special teams coach John Fassel a literal pair of brass balls.

St. Louis also scored touchdowns on all three of its trips to the red zone, as rookie quarterback Austin Davis went 17-of-20 for 155 yards and two scores against a nonexistent Seattle pass rush. The Seahawks averaged 5.9 yards per carry and 8.7 yards per pass, but the special-teams chicanery was enough to give St. Louis an upset win.

Can the Patriots Do That? No. The Patriots have the league’s fifth-best special teams, but asking anybody for two huge returns and a high-leverage fake punt is too much. Most of what makes New England’s special teams great comes down to Stephen Gostkowski’s leg, anyway.

Week 11: Kansas City 24, Seattle 20

What Happened: Seattle simply had no answer for Jamaal Charles, who carried the ball 20 times for 159 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Alex Smith threw only 16 passes, with the Seahawks failing to sack or knock him down even one time. Kansas City went 2-of-6 on third down and lost two of its three fumbles on offense, but Charles was so good that the Seahawks really couldn’t stop him when they needed to do so.

While the combination of Lynch and Wilson ran the ball 32 times for a total of 195 yards, the Seahawks weren’t efficient enough in the red zone to come away with a victory. They made five trips inside the Kansas City 20-yard line and produced just 20 points, including a pair of short first-half field goals and a fourth-and-goal stop from the 2-yard line by the Kansas City pass defense in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks finished with an enormous penalty disparity, committing eight penalties for 50 yards, while Kansas City had just three for 6 yards.

Can the Patriots Do That? No. They don’t have a weapon as versatile and effective as Charles; Rob Gronkowski might be every bit as good of a tight end as Charles is a running back, but the Patriots can’t rely on him quite as heavily and can’t move him around as much as the Chiefs move around Charles. It’s unlikely the Seattle pass rush will be this bad, and New England’s 11th-ranked red zone defense isn’t likely to keep the Seahawks at four points per trip. The Patriots also commit too many penalties for that sort of penalty gap.

New England Patriots v Kansas City ChiefsPeter G. Aiken/Getty Images

New England’s Losses

Week 1: Miami 33, New England 20

What Happened: The Dolphins dominated with their rushing attack, with the combination of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller carrying the ball 35 times for 193 yards and a touchdown. Most of that came in the second half, when the two ran the ball 24 times for 126 yards to help keep the Patriots off the field. Ryan Tannehill was just 18-of-32 for 178 yards with a pick, but the running game was so effective that it didn’t matter.

With the Dolphins running game clicking and their pass rush bothering Brady, the Patriots were held scoreless in the second half for the only time all season. Brady threw 56 passes but averaged a mere 4.4 yards per attempt, with a 44-yard completion to Julian Edelman the only downfield throw he completed all game. The Miami pass rush took over as the game went along, and a clearly frustrated Brady went just 1-of-6 with a sack on third downs during the second half.

Can the Seahawks Do That? Yes. Just as was the case with Seattle’s first loss, this is the exact sort of game Patriots fans should fear. Seattle can run the ball on anybody, and if Lynch gets going, all the cornerbacks in the world won’t mean a thing. Seattle’s pass rush has also markedly improved as the season’s gone along, and the Seahawks have allowed opponents to convert just 37.1 percent of third downs, the eighth-best rate in the league. Gronkowski caught just four of his 11 targets in this game, and if Bobby Wagner & Co. slow him down, it could be curtains for the Pats.

Week 4: Kansas City 41, New England 14

What Happened: You probably remember this one. The Kansas City pass rush annihilated the Patriots, repeatedly forcing Brady into inaccurate throws and desperate checkdowns. The Chiefs sacked him only twice amid 25 dropbacks, but Brady threw two picks and fumbled twice in a 2-for-9 performance on third down. And when the Chiefs had the ball, they were wildly efficient. Charles and Knile Davis combined for 199 yards on 34 carries, while Smith went 20-of-26 for 248 yards while throwing mostly screens and quick passes to open receivers. The Chiefs held the ball for nearly 37 minutes in a dominant performance.

Can the Seahawks Do That? Yes. This is a more severe variant of the Dolphins game. Everything that applies there applies here. I can’t imagine New England’s offensive line playing as poorly as it did during that Chiefs game, but if rookie center Bryan Stork is out again and everyone has to shuffle around, anything is possible.

Week 13: Green Bay 26, New England 21

What Happened: The Packers outlasted the Patriots in an instant classic. Aaron Rodgers went 24-of-38 for 368 yards and two scores in an MVP-caliber performance. With the Patriots sticking Darrelle Revis on Jordy Nelson, Rodgers mostly went after Logan Ryan with throws to Davante Adams, who had a team-high 121 yards. Richard Rodgers caught a touchdown pass over Patrick Chung. The Packers went 10-for-17 on third down and got away with trying five field goals, hitting four of them, all in the red zone.

The Patriots basically built their game plan around throwing exclusively to their three top receivers, with Gronkowski, Edelman, and Brandon LaFell targeted on 29 of Brady’s 35 dropbacks. Gronk’s 12 targets produced 98 yards, but the 17 targets to Edelman and LaFell resulted in 86 yards, an average barely squeaking over five yards per attempt. Just a week after running all over the Colts, the Patriots averaged 4.7 yards per carry, but chose to run the ball only 18 times, giving 10 carries to the returning LeGarrette Blount.

Can the Seahawks Do That? No. This game plan requires a deep group of receivers and a superstar quarterback who can destroy worlds with his arm, and while Wilson is a valuable, talented quarterback, he’s not Rodgers. The Patriots will also likely spread the ball across a wider group of targets in this game, owing to the strengths of the Seattle defense.

Week 17: Buffalo 17, New England 9

What Happened: The Patriots left a handful of superstars inactive and took Brady out of the game for Jimmy Garoppolo at halftime.

Can the Seahawks Do That? It would be weird. I’m sure there’s some enterprising columnist who would suggest that the Patriots had the idea of benching Brady for Garoppolo up their sleeve all this time, but I’m going to submit that this isn’t a sustainable way to beat New England. Then again, if anybody could charm the opposing coach into leaving a half-dozen of his best players on the bench, wouldn’t it be Pete Carroll?

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell