1. All eyes on the Patriots’ offense. The last time New England played Seattle, in 2012, quarterback Tom Brady threw the ball 58 times. If the Patriots employ a similar game plan Sunday, how they are able to protect Brady will go a long way toward determining how successful it is. Brady’s average pass traveled only 8.09 yards this season, which ranked 20th in the NFL, so the Patriots don’t need to wait for routes to develop. They just need to protect long enough for their receivers to come off any jams at the line of scrimmage and for Brady to complete the quick passes he favors.
2. Where does Richard Sherman line up? It’s between New England’s Darrelle Revis and Seattle’s Richard Sherman for the title of best cornerback in football. How the Seahawks utilize Sherman will be particularly interesting Sunday. He usually covers the left side of the field, but Brady doesn’t throw in that direction often. According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, only 16 percent of Brady’s passes traveled to his right. Since he doesn’t throw in that direction much as it is, it might make sense for the Seahawks to move Sherman off his usual spot and onto Brady’s favorite target. That would be slot receiver Julian Edelman, who was targeted 135 times.
3. The ‘other’ tight end will be key. Amherst’s Rob Gronkowski will certainly play a huge part in Sunday’s game for the Patriots. He’s the best in the NFL at his position. But it’s the tight end on the other side who could be a sleeper. Seattle’s Luke Willson, pictured, has nine catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in the postseason. New England struggled covering tight ends in the regular season, allowing an average of 65.6 yards per game against players at the position, according to the advanced statistics website Football Outsiders. New England ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ rankings when it came to defending opposing tight ends. Willson, a native of Ontario who is 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, had 216 yards after the catch in the regular season, an average of almost 10 yards per reception.
4. Special teams favor the Patriots. New England’s Julian Edelman averaged 12 yards per punt return in the regular season, behind only Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles. Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski was 35 of 37 on field goals, while punter Ryan Allen finished 12th in net average (39.9 yards) per punt. The Seahawks, meanwhile, struggled in punt coverage, allowing an average return of 11.5 yards that ranked 30th in the NFL. Seattle also ranks 30th in kick-return average and 25th in punt-return average, so if there is a big play to be made on special teams, New England has the advantage.
5. Block out the distractions. Each team has dealt with controversy in the lead-up to Sunday’s game – albeit New England more so. The “Deflategate” storyline has brought about cheating accusations against the Patriots, while the Seahawks have had to answer questions about running back Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to speak with the media. How both teams deal with the unwelcome sideshows will be up to coaches Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll.
Outlook: The Seahawks were able to defeat the Packers in the NFC Championship Game despite four interceptions by Russell Wilson. Don’t expect a repeat performance.
Prediction: Seahawks 23, Patriots 21.