The weird thing about the Super Bowl is that, despite being America's most-watched sporting event, the game itself seems almost tangential. The buzz around year's event, held in neutral Phoenix, Arizona, has had more to do with deflated balls, Katy Perry, and whether or not Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will speak to media than with the action on the field. But rest assured: In addition to the usual distractions, the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots will in fact play 60 minutes of real, live football.
An estimated 110 million-odd people will watch the game this year, and many will likely be attending a Super Bowl party. However, not even close to all of them are NFL fanatics—not the type of person who plays in three fantasy leagues, has season tickets to the local team, and can rattle off the members of the Jacksonville Jaguars punt return unit.
For casual fans, lured to the party by the prospect of chicken wings and good beer, insightful commentary might be hard to come. For those who have not paid much attention to the NFL last fall, but still want to sound smart, here's a handy guide of the key match-ups and implications of Super Bowl XLIX—at least the part that's played on the field.
1. Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots' foremost offensive star, besides quarterback Tom Brady, is Rob Gronkowski, a 6 foot 6, 275-pound mountain of a tight end whose size and speed can make it seem like he belongs in a higher league.
"Watching Gronkowski play is the closest we’ll ever come to watching dinosaurs interact with normal animals" http://t.co/JCksYzSurs— Rob Montz (@Robmontz) November 17, 2014
Against ordinary defensive backfields, Gronkowski is a nightmare to defend: He's too big for most cornerbacks and too fast for most safeties. But the Seahawks back four are far from ordinary. Referred to as the "Legion of Boom," the quartet of cornerback Richard Sherman, cornerback Byron Maxwell, safety Earl Thomas, and safety Kam Chancellor comprise arguably the best secondary in the NFL. The Seahawks should have little trouble neutralizing the Patriots' wide receiver corps. But Gronkowski is the key. If he can find room to maneuver, the Patriots shouldn't have a problem scoring.
2. The Patriots' running backs. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is the NFL's most complete running back, a warhorse whose strength and tenacity often requires multiple defenders to bring him down. The Patriots, meanwhile, rely on a group that includes the more modestly gifted LaGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen. Their performance has been inconsistent. Against the Baltimore Ravens, whom New England defeated 35-31 in the AFC Divisional Game, the two combined for just 7 rushing yards. But the following week, however, Blount torched Indianapolis for 148 yards in the Patriots' 45-7 demolition of the Colts. If New England's runners fail to get it going against the Seahawks' taut run defense, then the Pats' hopes will depend on the right arm of Mr. Brady.
3. The Seahawks' read option. Brady's counterpart is Russell Wilson, a player whose intelligence and mobility compensate for a modest throwing arm. To maximize his strengths, the Seahawks run a "read-option" offense that allows Wilson to frequently exit the pocket and improvise runs and throws. New England's strong secondary should have little trouble containing Seattle's wide receiving corps, a less impressive group than the players who torched the Broncos 43-8 in last year's Super Bowl XLVIII. But if Wilson finds room to scramble, he's dangerous—and the Seahawks will score.
4. The Legacy Implications. Neither team is new to this. This is the eighth Super Bowl appearance for the Patriots, matching the NFL record shared by the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. And unless he trips and breaks his ankle while running out of the locker room, this will be Tom Brady's sixth appearance in the game, eclipsing a record he shared with John Elway. A Patriots victory would give Brady his fourth Super Bowl ring, tying him with Terry Bradshaw and his boyhood idol Joe Montana. Head Coach Bill Belichick may be about as charming as a nitroglycerine plant, but a win on Sunday would tie him with Steelers legend Chuck Noll for the most titles of all time for a coach.
A loss to Seattle, however, would be the Patriots' third Super Bowl letdown in a row, complicating one of the NFL's most successful legacies. And while he shows few signs of slowing down, how many more opportunities will 37-year-old Tom Brady get to hoist the Lombardi trophy?
For the Seahawks, meanwhile, a victory would make them just the third team to win consecutive Super Bowls since the NFL instituted a salary cap in 1994, following the 1997-8 Denver Broncos and the 2003-4 Patriots. Success in professional football is a fickle beast, but in predicting which team will become the league's next Patriots—it's probably the Seahawks. That's unless they lose, of course.