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Breaking down the Big Game in 2015

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A look at Super Bowl XLIX

I'm going to be clear right from the start I really don't want to talk about balls. I don't want to talk about a ball's air pressure differentials with regard to temperature. I don't want to talk about overhauls in the chain of custody procedures for game balls. I don't want to talk about ball customization tailored to the individual quarterback.

Granted, talking about balls tends to make me giggle, but even I have my limits.

The hot take feeding frenzy that has surrounded 'Deflate-gate' would seem to have said everything that needs to be said (and a whole lot that probably didn't need to be said). It's the ideal story for the gap week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl it is relatively vague, absolutely polarizing and (in the grand scheme of things) ultimately meaningless. I don't pretend to know all the details none of us do and while I continue to hope that some reasonable explanation is found (I am a homer, after all), there are very few outcomes here that would surprise me.

Regardless of what you believe, in the end, the Patriots and the Seahawks are going to hit the field in Arizona and take their shots at the Lombardi Trophy. So let's maybe talk about the game, shall we?

It has the potential to be a great one, an all-timer. These are two fantastic teams. Both came into the postseason as the top seed in their respective conferences; both triumphed over some quality teams to put themselves in position to compete for a championship. And even with the off-field distractions, there's no question that coaches Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll will have their guys ready.

Belichick along with quarterback Tom Brady are in their sixth Super Bowl with a chance to win their fourth. However, the last two trips ended in heartbreak against the New York Giants. It's a chance at a historic victory for these two longtime collaborators; the legacy of this era's New England Patriots could well be defined by this game, win or lose. The window is closing.

On the other side of the field, Carroll has a burgeoning powerhouse of his own. The Seahawks are the reigning champions; they have a chance to be the first winners of back-to-back titles in over a decade (a feat last accomplished by the Patriots). With quarterback Russell Wilson leading the charge and an elite running back in Marshawn Lynch - plus a top-shelf defense Seattle has all the pieces.

Let's break it down. And again, as always, it should be noted that I am merely a fairly well-informed fan. I am also an unabashed Patriots fan, so please factor my inadvertent homerism into the equation.

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Quarterback

Tom Brady will go down in history as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL. He has an exceptional record of postseason success, but a win in this game will give him four rings rarified air for any QB. He may have lost a step and a little zip on his throws, but his football awareness is unparalleled. He has the talent to thwart even elite defenses which is good, because that's precisely what he's facing.

Russell Wilson has also built himself quite a playoff resume in just a few short years. He's shown a knack for stepping up his game when it matters most. He might not have the experience of a Brady just yet, but he's got a live arm and a real knack for knowing when to tuck the ball and run. He's a quietly explosive talent; young or not, he is very much the leader of this team. Some might be intimidated by the Pats, but not Wilson.

In the end, both are exceptional, but Brady's still got the edge.

Advantage: Patriots, but it's closer than you think

Running Back

The New England running game has a tendency to run hot and cold. In just this postseason, they won games in which they rushed for 14 yards (against Baltimore) and 177 yards (against Indianapolis). One imagines they'll wind up somewhere in the middle in this game. There's no star in the Patriots backfield; LeGarrette Blount is probably the closest after his 148 yard, three TD effort against the Colts. Still, expect plenty of Shane Vereen and possibly Jonas Gray or Brandon Bolden. It's a decent group, but no one is scared of them.

Meanwhile, Seattle has one of the scariest running backs in the league in Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode started off slow with a relatively light load against the Panthers, but turned it on in the NFC championship to the tune of 25 carries for 157 yards. He's the leader of a rushing attack that was the best in the NFL this season; the Patriots run defense is good, but Lynch operates on a different level than most running backs. If he gets going, he'll be a nightmare for New England.

Advantage: Seahawks

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Any conversation about the New England pass catching brigade begins with Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has long since proven himself to be a game-changing force when healthy and he appears to be healthy going into this game. As a counterpoint, you have the intrepid Julian Edelman, who has made 17 catches this postseason, with seemingly every one moving the chains. Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola have also come on strong in the playoffs. Put them all together and you get a group that you know is good, but might be even better than you think.

Seattle's receiving corps doesn't have a Gronk equivalent, but that's understandable Gronks don't grow on trees. That said, the Seahawks have assembled a quietly capable group of pass-catchers. The one-two punch of Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse might not be sexy, but they're guys who get the job done. However, the ranks kind of thin out after that. The team's tight ends aren't elite receivers, nor do they generate a lot of receptions out of the backfield. Overall, it's a solid group, but it lacks any real gamebreakers.

Advantage: Patriots

Offensive Line

New England struggled to find cohesion on the offensive line early in the season and it showed. However, they settled on a group that proved extremely capable; they've done excellent work with pass protection and keeping their QB upright in this postseason. They're going to have to continue doing so against a Seattle defense that excels in all facets of the game. An injury to rookie center Bryan Stork is concerning, but if he continues to recover and the unit regains full strength, they'll be ready to put up a fight.

The line play of the Seahawks is awfully, awfully good. You don't lead the league in rushing offense without a real road-grading offensive line, and Seattle's is just that. They definitely struggle a bit in pass protection, but the mobility of their quarterback partially negates that issue. Running the ball is the foundation of the Seahawks attack; their offensive line allows them to do just that. If they can keep opening up holes, it could be a long day for the Patriots.

Advantage: Patriots

Defensive Line

New England's front four has some players with legitimate talent. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is one of the best run-stuffers in the league, while end Chandler Jones has shown flashes of big play potential in the pass rush. Rob Ninkovich has shown some flashes as well. However, there has been an overall lack of consistent penetration from the Patriots D-line. They're going to need to find ways to ramp up the pressure in order to keep Wilson and Lynch from running wild.

The Seattle line is led by end Cliff Avril, who has a sack in each of the last two games. They've been one of the best run-stopping units in the league, though they've come back down to earth a bit in the playoffs. Still, they generate a fair amount of pressure on the quarterback and find ways to shut down opposing running backs. They'll likely have relatively little trouble with New England's run game; if so, they'll be free to get after Tom Brady.

Advantage: Seahawks

Linebackers

This is the best collection of linebacking talent we've seen in New England for some time. Jamie Collins leads the way; he has shown an aptitude for just about every aspect of defensive football this year and has managed 15 combined tackles and an interception this postseason. Dont'a Hightower is another exceptional player in the Patriots linebacking corps. This group has had to do a bit of everything all year and has done it fairly well. They should match up well with Seattle's rushing and short passing attacks.

Still, while New England's linebackers are good, Seattle's might just be great particularly first-team All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who is a legitimate sideline to sideline force. He has 19 tackles in the playoffs. K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin serve on either side of Wagner, and while they don't have quite the transcendent talent that he does, they're still awfully good. There's a very real chance that this unit is the one that makes or breaks Seattle's chances at shutting down the New England offense.

Advantage: Seahawks

Defensive Backs

New England has one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL in Darrelle Revis. Revis has shown himself to be an elite talent - he's first-team All-Pro - capable of shutting down even the most talented of opposing receivers. And while Brandon Browner hasn't been quite the force he was expected to be, he's still looked pretty good. Patrick Chung is a perfectly capable safety, while Devin McCourty continues to display a nose for the ball. The Patriots have traditionally been a fairly uneven team in the defensive backfield, but that is no longer the case this group is good.

Of course, the other All-Pro corner is Seattle's Richard Sherman, who is every bit Revis's equal in terms of both talent and production; he might even be better. But there's more to this group than just Sherman. Safety Earl Thomas is on the All-Pro first team, while fellow safety Kam Chancellor made the second team. It's an immensely talented group the most talented unit on the most talented defense in the NFL. Shutting down Tom Brady is an immense task, but if anybody is up for it, it's these guys.

Advantage: Seahawks

Special Teams

Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best, most consistent placekickers in the league. He missed just two field goals in the regular season and made his sole postseason attempt. He also manages a touchback on kickoffs roughly half the time. Punter Ryan Allen has been consistently solid, but generally uninspiring. Julian Edelman has continued his good work on punt returns, while Danny Amendola has stepped up his game on kickoffs.

Seattle's Stephen Hauschka is a fine kicker in his own right, going 31 for 37 in the regular season and making his lone attempt in the playoffs. Seattle punter Jon Ryan has been a weapon in the field position game (and he threw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal to boot). The return game has been fair, but unimpressive; Doug Baldwin and Bryan Walters have put up performances that are adequate at best.

Advantage: Patriots

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And there we have it. On paper, this appears to be a fairly even matchup, with Seattle holding advantages at running back and on defense, while New England looks stronger in the passing game and on special teams. It's Arizona, so the weather is a non-factor. And while I consider Bill Belichick to be a superior coach to Pete Carroll, the unfortunate distractions of Deflate-gate might well negate any advantages that might have come with that superiority.

In essence, many people including oddsmakers - consider this game to be more or less a coin flip whose outcome will likely come down to a handful of key plays. But with all else being equal, is there any doubt that I'm going to go with my heart?

Final prediction: New England Patriots 30 Seattle Seahawks 27

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