Everyone knows the stars who’ll be playing in Super Bowl XLIX, and what kind of impact they can have on the outcome of this Sunday’s matchup between the Seahawks and Patriots in Arizona.
But beyond Tom Brady, Marshawn Lynch, Rob Gronskowi and Richard Sherman there are other lesser-known players, units and factors that could be key. Among these are:
1. Justin Britt, Seahawks right offensive tackle
The rookie from Missouri, a second-round pick, showed great promise his first season. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder played every offensive snap of the regular season. And, the Seahawks running game ran more often off right guard and right tackle this year, with Lynch often getting big chunks in that direction. But Britt – who missed the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury – has been a liability as a pass blocker. According to the Washington Post, citing Pro Football Focus, Britt ranked dead last as a pass blocker among right tackles in 2014 and was fourth worst among all tackles. If the Patriots see Britt as a weakness – he’s reportedly fit again and will start Sunday – they could scheme to attack him in new and varied ways to exploit his deficiencies, which could be a big problem for Seattle’s passing attack, especially if the Seahawks fall behind.
2. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots offensive tackles
Both blockers are solid, with Solder at left tackle and Vollmer on the right side. But they anchor an offensive line that will be tested by the Seattle pass rush, particularly defensive ends Michael Bennett (seven sacks in 2014) and Cliff Avril (five). For the Pats passing offense to work efficiently, Tom Brady will need time and Solder and Vollmer will need to seal off the outside pass rush, whether it be against Bennett and Avril or blitzing linebackers or defensive backs.
3. Patriots special teams
It was the Seahawks who made big news on championship game Sunday by pulling off a fake-field goal play for a touchdown that started their comeback and then recovering an onside kick. But in a duel of special teams, the Patriots’ units are stronger, and in a game as close as this one is expected to be, that could be the difference in the outcome. The Patriots’ special teams were ranked No. 3 in the NFL in 2014 in the annual special teams analysis put together by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, behind only the Eagles and Bills. The Seahawks were 17th. The Pats blocked three field goals and one punt this season. Julian Edelman was fifth in the NFL in punt-return yards and averaged 11 yards per return. Matthew Slater – the son of former Rams Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater -- is a four-time Pro Bowler on special teams and a coverage and tackling star.
4. Bobby Wagner, Seahawks middle linebacker
He doesn’t look imposing as NFL linebackers go, at 6 feet and 241 pounds, and he's overshadowed by Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and the overall Legion of Boom defense. But the third-year pro from Utah State was selected first-team All-Pro this season and was NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December. He was a key to the Seahawks defense countering the Denver Broncos’ offense in last year’s Super Bowl and will be the man to counter Brady’s play-calling and audibles Sunday. After missing the first five games of this season, Wagner has been the catalyst to the Seahawks defensive revival. His wide-ranging speed, smarts and ability to rush the passer can destroy even well-designed plays. The Patriots will need to find a way to counter his effectiveness via blocking schemes or misdirection.
5. Turnover and penalty problems of the Seahawks
Seattle is a ball-control offense, with a strong running game. But the Seahawks – who usually take good care of the football – didn’t in the NFC Championship game against Green Bay. They had five turnovers, a problem they can’t repeat against the Patriots, who finished tied for second in the NFL this season with a plus-12 on the takeaway/giveaway charts. Seattle was right behind, tied for fourth at plus-9, so the NFC title game implosion wasn’t usual. But they can’t afford another flood of mistakes. Meanwhile, the Seahawks were the most-penalized team in the NFL, getting flagged 144 times for 1,112 yards while – and here’s the strange part – being the beneficiary of just 80 penalties against their opponents, the lowest total in the NFL.