Super Bowl: Episode XLIX — The Overview

Super Bowl cover

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Super Bowl: Episode XLIX is finally here.

In Star Wars terms we have the bad guys, the New England Patriots. The galactic empire, led by the mysterious, hooded evil emperor himself, Bill Belichick.

Their opponent? The cocky young rebels — the Seattle Seahawks, led by their “crazy old man” of a leader, the Obi-Wan like Pete Carroll.

How long can we keep this Lucasfilms analogy going?

Let’s see, Seattle has two players from Ice Planet Hoth — Canadian tight end Luke Willson (of La Salle, Ont.) and Canadian punter Jon Ryan (of Regina).

Then there’s Darth Brady and his Stormtroopers, clashing with Russell Skywalker and Marshawn Lynch, and . . .

Yeah, that’s about as far as it goes.

No matter, the NFL’s 2014 season climaxes Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale with Super Bowl XLIX. For those of you tired of figuring out the Roman numerals, it’s Super Bowl 49.

Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. EST on CTV/NBC.

If the NFC champion Seahawks win, they’ll become the ninth team to repeat as champion. Quarterback Russell Wilson will have begun his career with two Super Bowl wins in three years — a feat last accomplished 11 years ago by Tom Brady.

Speaking of whom, if the AFC champion New England Patriots are victorious it would mark the fourth Super Bowl win in seven appearances this century for the most successful coach/quarterback combo the NFL has known.

Belichick and Brady won it all in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons and lost the title game in 2007 and 2011. Since 2001 they have led the Patriots to 20 playoff victories. Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw are next with 14, followed by Dallas’ Tom Landry and Roger Staubach with 11.

But even if Belichick/Brady win Super Bowl No. 4, and playoff game No. 21, for at least he time being it would come with an asterisk the size of a, well, Death Star.

That’s because the NFL, inexplicably and voluntarily, chose to tarnish this Super Bowl with a bungled, clumsy launch of an investigation into what now has all the appearances of a dubious — probably impossible-to-prove — charge of illegal, purposeful football deflation on the part of Patriots in the AFC title game.

The NFL says most or all of the 12 footballs the Patriots used on offence against Indianapolis were found at halftime to have dropped in pressure below the allowable range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch, by as much as 2 PSI.

The referee had found New England’s footballs to be properly inflated during his requisite pregame testing. Somehow, though, the pressure in those balls deflated slightly after two quarters; the Colts’ balls did not.

Belichick, Brady and Pats owner Robert Kraft have all emphatically insisted neither they nor anyone on their team deliberately let any air out of those footballs, presumably to provide Brady with better grip on a cool, rainy night in New England.

Some scientists and electric-pump experts have reached out to me to suggest entirely plausible scenarios whereby 2 PSI could have deflated naturally, given various conditions, and without anyone from the Pats surreptitiously inserting a pin to release air, as is suspected.

Whatever.

The scandal has overshadowed one of the most compelling Super Bowl matches in recent memory, with all its compelling storylines:

 

THE BEST vs. THE BEST

New England and Seattle shared the league’s best record in 2014 with three other teams, at 12-4.

But by season’s end, each clearly was the best team in its conference. The Patriots have lost one meaningful game since September (at Green Bay), the Seahawks one since mid-October.

Rarely have two teams burst onto a Super Bowl field on such rolls.

 

BRADY & CO. vs. BOOM & CO.

New England’s under-appreciated rushing offence and high-precision passing attack, piloted by Brady, faces one of the greatest defences in NFL history.

Spicing up this matchup is that the last time the two teams met, in October 2012, Brady got into it verbally with some of the Seahawks defenders, who still haven’t forgotten the slights despite winning 24-23.

“He was pretty much saying that we were nobodies,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said last week, “and we should come up to him after they got the win. He said stuff like that throughout the game.”

No stat speaks to the historical greatness of Seattle’s defence more than this: five of their last six regular-season opponents failed to score more than seven points. In this era? With virtually every rule jerry-rigged to aid the offence? Incredible.

The unit is anchored by a fast and ferocious line, perhaps the league’s best linebacker corps — led by someone who should be a household name, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner — and the most feared secondary in the game, the “Legion of Boom,” that boasts (oh, does it boast) the game’s best safeties and league-best cornerback in Sherman.

“We go into every game thinking we are going to dominate on defence, and limit you on everything,” all-pro safety Kam Chancellor said. “That’s what No. 1 defences do. That’s our mentality. That’s how we approach every single game.”

COACH vs. COACH

Belichick vs Carroll, probably the best two coaches who have worked a sideline anywhere this century.

Both came up through the defensive ranks, and both keep their game-day plans of attack on that side of the ball as basic as it gets: take away what opposing offences like to do most.

Yet their means to that simplistic end are so dissimilar in so many ways: Belichick with his calm, cunning, calculated approach to everything, and Carroll with his universally applied Up With People mantra, with energy and compete knobs cranked always to 11.

But after taking their lumps in the ’90s, both men have figured out brilliantly this century how to win, their way, at equally impressive rates.

At the traditional Friday morning Super Bowl news conference pairing both head coaches, Carroll and Belichick predictably chatted up the other. But their mutual respect seemed to strike so much deeper.

“I think that Pete’s one of the great coaches in my time,” Belichick said. “What he’s done at USC and now in his five years with Seattle is beyond impressive. I tried to study him closely and learn from many of the things that he and his organization have done.

“They play extremely hard, down after down after down, week after week, year after year. They compete as relentlessly as well as any team or any organization I’ve ever observed.”

Said Carroll of Belichick: “Having the first-round bye 10 times … all the championship opportunities, all of the Super Bowls, and the ability to show –regardless of the personnel, regardless of the coaching staff — championship-level play, that’s Bill. That’s Bill’s direction and leadership.”

 

THE BEAST

It’s hard to remember the last time we saw an NFL running back the likes of “Beastmode” Lynch. Earl Campbell in the late ’70s? Maybe.

Lynch is about to conclude his eighth year in the NFL. Yet his formidability still seems to grow with each victim conquered, like (mixed sci-fi metaphor alert!) the Alien. Seriously, it’s as though Lynch becomes even harder to haul down with every handoff, every game, every tackler he trucks over, bounces off or screeches around.

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia summed up the wonder that is Beastmode.

“He always has his feet in good position to be able to break, or move,” Patricia said. “His jump-cut ability, and his ability to slide from side to side, is just phenomenal. And the ability to explode and burst out of that, and through tackles.

“He’s really the full package. We got to see him quite a bit when he was in Buffalo (2007-10), and I was pretty happy when he left to go to Seattle.”

 

RUSSELL WILSON

Finally, there’s Wilson, this century’s version of Doug Flutie.

He’s too short. Too unconventional. Too scrambly. And too young to have figured it all out so completely already.

The counters to each of those? But he plays above it. But it doesn’t matter. But he makes it work as few other scramblers ever have. But it’s true; he has.

Unlike Flutie in his stints south of the Canadian border, however, Wilson not only has a coach and owner who believe in him fully, but who empower his sometimes unorthodox yet highly effective approaches to NFL quarterbacking.

“He can pass inside the pocket, he can pass on the move and all the structured stuff,” Carroll said. “But then he has the dynamic ability to get out of the pocket and create with his legs, running as well as passing. (He can) run the full gamut of what you would hope a quarterback could do.

“That’s not even to mention the leadership qualities, the character he brings, the tremendous competitiveness. He’s a perfect fit for us.”

 

*  *  *

 

So either way, history will be made Sunday night in this sprawling desert metropolis.

Seattle can join Green Bay (1966-67), Miami (1972-73), Pittsburgh (1974-75), Pittsburgh again (1978-79), San Francisco (1988-89), Dallas (1992-93), Denver (1997-98) and New England (2003-04) as the only back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the high holy holiday of Americana kicked off on January 15, 1967.

For New England, Belichick can join Pittsburgh’s Noll as the only four-time Super Bowl winning coach, while Brady can join Pittsburgh’s Bradshaw and his own childhood Bay Area idol — San Francisco’s Joe Montana — as a four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.

Canadians even have a greater interest than usual in the Super Bowl’s outcome. According to NFL Canada, north of the border the most popular NFL team is the Seahawks, while the top-selling player jersey is Brady’s.

Perhaps the only life-forms who aren’t interested in this game’s outcome lived a long time ago — in a galaxy far, far away.

5 reasons the Patriots will win Super Bowl XLIX

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Let’s get right to it. Here are the five reasons the New England Patriots will win Super Bowl XLIX:

 

1. THE BRADY FACTOR

Ya hate to point this out so frankly, but it’s true. Last year in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, Denver’s Peyton Manning played as he usually does in the post-season. Tentative. Unsure. Flustered. And most of all, not well.

He’s 11-13 (.458) in the playoffs and stumbled to his worst playoff performance against the Seahawks, or at least until his stinker against Indianapolis a few weeks ago.

SUPERFor whatever reason, by comparison, New England’s Tom Brady (my Media Day photo, right) shines at this time of year.

He’s 20-8 (.714) in the playoffs, which is almost as good as his NFL-best-ever regular-season win percentage of .773.

What’s more, Brady is 3-2 in the Super Bowl, with the only losses coming late to the New York Giants, by three points apiece, thanks to a pair of freak completions; the Giants are still paying down that hefty debt to Football’s Valhalla.

Bottom line, Brady won’t be scared worth a damn. Even by this Seahawks defence.

 

2. QUALITY-FOE COMPARISON

The Patriots fared much better than the Seahawks did against good teams, records notwithstanding. You reach this conclusion after taking a closer look at the comparative games.

In the regular-season Seattle was 5-1 against eventual playoff teams, and 5-3 against teams that would finish with a winning record.

New England was 4-1 against playoff teams, and 6-3 against above-.500 clubs.

But it was far from a wash.

The Seahawks played a lot of teams this year that started second- or third-string quarterbacks, because of season-ending injuries to the No. 1s.

Check this out. After impressively crushing Green Bay 36-16 in the game that kicked off the 2014 NFL season, the Seahawks played only four more teams that started their No. 1 QB against them and which would finish with a winning record.

Seattle lost to three of those teams (to San Diego 30-21, to Dallas 30-23 and to Kansas City 24-20), and beat the other only in overtime (Denver 26-20).

The Seahawks needed a blocked-punt return for a TD and a gift TD scored after the recovery of a muffed punt by the Cowboys at their 10 to not have been blown right out of their own stadium.

SUPERIn the playoffs, the Seahawks needed QB Russell Wilson (left) to have probably his best passing performance as a pro to eventually pull away from 7-8-1 Carolina in the NFC divisional playoffs, 31-17, then required a once-a-decade miracle comeback plus overtime to beat banged-up Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, 28-22.

New England, meantime, rebounded from a 41-14 shellacking at Kansas City on the last Monday in September to do this to winning teams starting a No. 1 quarterback:

Beat Cincinnati, 43-17.

Beat Buffalo, 37-22.

Beat Denver, 43-21.

Beat Indianapolis, 42-20.

Beat Detroit, 34-9.

Lost at Green Bay, 26-21.

Beat San Diego, 23-14.

And lost to Buffalo 17-9, in a meaningless season finale in which the Patriots either rested or briefly played many key starters.

In two playoff wins in January, New England scored 80 points, coming back to beat Baltimore 35-31 and destroying Indy 45-7.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Patriots have been the far more dominant team against good opposition this season than the Seahawks.

 

3. BELICHICK WON’T TURTLE

SUPERThink Bill would shut his offence down after halftime, as Packers head coach Mike McCarthy did, up 16-0 at Seattle in the NFC title game? Of course not.

You don’t run up such large margins of victories against good teams as New England did this year without a cut-throat mentality.

If the Patriots get ahead, they won’t be content to stop playing hurry-up, as the Packers did in the second half even though it proved so successful in the first half.

Belichick and Brady keep swinging until delivering knockout blows.

 

4. LEGION OF BOO-BOOS

Three-quarters of Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary, at best, will play the Super Bowl slightly banged up. To what degree will their injuries hamper them against Brady and Co.?

SUPERAll-pro cornerback Richard Sherman (left) dislocated his left elbow against Green Bay two weeks ago. Apparently he’s fine now.

All-pro deep safety Earl Thomas dislocated his left shoulder two weeks ago. He hasn’t had to tackle anybody since the fourth quarter against the Packers.

And second-team all-pro strong safety Kam Chancellor limped away from practice just on Friday, after slipping and hurting a knee. He’s listed as probable to play Sunday.

If any of them aren’t playing up to their usual abilities, the Patriots coaches and Brady will surely notice soon enough, and exploit the opportunity.

 

5. PATRIOTS CAN RUN IT, TOO

Ask the Indianapolis Colts about that. In two games against New England this year the Colts surrendered a combined 423 yards on the ground.

LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray form an under-rated running-back-by-committee. All they need to do is gain enough yards to keep the Seahawks defence not thinking pass-only.

But there’s this, too. At times this season the Seahawks’ great defence did prove vulnerable against the run. Especially when teams ran straight at them, because it nullifies their incredible east-west speed.

Six times during the regular season the Seahawks allowed 100-plus rushing yards. They lost four of those games: at San Diego, to Dallas, at St. Louis and at Kansas City.

Expect the Patriots to run right at the Seahawks, and be successful enough at it to win Super Bowl XLIX.

 

 

Blandino: NFL consults with CFL to see how adding PI calls to video reviews went over in 2014

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The NFL has been in touch with the CFL about how video reviews for pass-interference calls went over in 2014.

Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice-president of officiating, told Sun Media after Thursday’s football-operations news conference here at Super Bowl XLIX that he has talked with his counterpart north of the border about the matter of adding PI calls to video reviews.

“Yeah, I talked to Glen Johnson, who is (the CFL’s) head of officiating, and we’ve had conversations,” Blandino said. “And he has sent me the video, because it’s something that we’ll review with our committee.

“That’s something we can take and say, ‘Hey, that’s something they’re looking at it and let’s review.’”

According to Sun Media colleague Kirk Penton, CFL coaches challenged 55 pass-interference calls or non-calls in the 18-game 2014 season. Overturns occurred 17 times, or 31% of the time.

Coaches, players, executives and fans all seemed to be happy with the results.

‘Yeah,” Blandino said. “They seem to. I think the coaches appreciated the ability to at least challenge those calls.”

Branch began 2014 season in Buffalo Bills’ doghouse, ends it in Super Bowl with Patriots

Alan

 

PHOENIX, Ariz. – New England Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch is ending the 2014 season in the Super Bowl.

He began it in the doghouse, of then Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone. It was in July, at Bills training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y.

Branch showed up to camp slightly out of shape in Marrone’s estimation, and for five days could not partake in team drills. He worked out alone, on the sidelines, in sweats, as his teammates began prepping for the season. (That’s him in in the background in my photo from Day 1 of Bills training camp, with QB EJ Manuel in the foreground.)

The Bills cut Branch in late August, a day after he was arrested for DUI.

“I had a lapse of judgment,” Branch said Thursday morning, at the Patriots’ last media availability before Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. EST, CTV/NBC).

“That was their decision. I’m not mad about it.”

While he didn’t seem or sound angry about not having passed his pre-camp physical, it’s clear it still doesn’t sit well with him.

“I was fine,” Branch said. “Everybody is not going to be in football shape. You can’t practise being a D-lineman in the street. It’s not basketball. You can’t just go outside and train doing that.

“They said I was a little overweight. And I was, but just by a couple pounds. I mean, I wasn’t out of shape. Having a 300-pounder run a million gassers just to show that you’re in shape, I don’t think that proves a big man is in shape. Because that’s not a realistic run for a big guy in a game.”

Branch signed with the Bills as a free agent in March 2013, after spending his first four NFL seasons in Arizona and the 2011-12 seasons in Seattle.

Branch was a backup D-tackle in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defence in 2013. Last year at this time, though, the Bills switched to what Branch calls a base 4-3 “penetrating scheme” under Jim Schwartz.

“I’m not Marcell Dareus, where I’m a freak athlete who can do anything. I’m a big guy,” Branch said. “I can do that defence — I can play the 4-3. It’s just that (starting tackles) Marcell and Kyle (Williams) are a lot better at that scheme.

“I wasn’t as good as them, so I guess that made me look worse. But I really don’t think I came into camp out of shape.”

Branch latched on with the Patriots on Oct. 29 and immediately began seeing backup duty at defensive tackle. He started New England’s last two regular-season games, recording two quarterback hits and a pass knockdown by the playoffs.

Asked if he was surprised when Marrone bolted the Bills on New Year’s Eve, Branch said no.

“I saw that the New York (Jets) job was open, and I know he’s a Bronx guy. He decided to roll the dice on that and it really didn’t work out for him, I guess.

“But I mean, he’s a great coach and he knows what he’s doing. He’s a great offensive line coach as well, so I’m sure he’ll get another (head-coaching) opportunity.”

Richard Sherman and California sports-radio reporter go at it over his conflict-of-interest charge against commish

SUPERSUPER

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Richard Sherman does not like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Underscoring that point seems to be one of his missions here in his meetings with the press this week at Super Bowl XLIX.

And you’d better be prepared for a war of words if you dare challenge him on it.

On Tuesday at Media Day, a sports radio reporter from Palm Desert, Calif., did exactly that — and held her own admirably.

Julie Buehler of KXPS (my photo, above) challenged Sherman on his statement Sunday that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is so buddy-buddy with Goodell that it amounts to “a conflict of interest,” and is the reason the NFL’s deflation-scandal investigation likely will not result in any punishment for the Patriots, in Sherman’s view.

The all-pro cornerback on Sunday referred to a photograph that made the rounds on the web last week, showing Goodell at Kraft’s house just before the Patriots defeated the Colts in the AFC championship game.

Kraft is known to be a close confidante’s of the commissioner’s, whom some even believe to be the league’s second most powerful man.

On Tuesday, a few minutes into Sherman’s one-hour news conference, Buehler challenged Sherman’s Sunday statements.

Sherman not only didn’t back down, he gave it right back to Buehler. She didn’t back down either, and it was quite the exchange.

Here it is, as best as I could make it out amid the din:

 

BUEHLER: Kraft said that you didn’t know enough about that situation, so how much care do you put into your own research for you to state publicly that the commissioner of the NFL has a conflict of interest?

SHERMAN: Um, it’s not difficult for me to research.

BUEHLER: Did you do any research?

SHERMAN: I obviously did.

BUEHLER: But you were incorrect about that.

SHERMAN: In which way was I incorrect?

BUEHLER: You saying Goodell and Kraft have a conflict of interest is like you and (current New England Patriots cornerback and former Seattle Seahawk) Brandon Bowner not being able to talk as former teammates.

SHERMAN: That’s a little different.

BUEHLER: How so?

SHERMAN: I don’t work for Brandon Browner.

BUEHLER: (brief pause)

SHERMAN: You don’t have anything else?

BUEHLER: Oh no, I do. I wonder how much research you do –

SHERMAN: But you never answered my — you never (continued) our discussion, you never concluded that, so I don’t work for Brandon Browner, so the point is invalid.

BUEHLER: Well it’s not invalid … There are only 32 owners, and hanging out with an owner doesn’t mean there’s impropriety, just like you hanging out with a competitor at the Super Bowl doesn’t mean there’s impropriety.

SHERMAN: I don’t work for my — I don’t work for the competitor. I don’t get to impose discipline on the competitor.

BUEHLER: But you stated that there is a level of impropriety in hanging out. It isn’t accurate.

SHERMAN: How many other owners has he hung out with, has he had dinner at his house and took pictures with?

BUEHLER: Goodell … (inaudible, sounds like: “has a lot of friends.”)

SHERMAN: Have you done your research?

BUEHLER: Absolutely.

SHERMAN: No you haven’t. You just came up knee-jerk and said that. Come off it.

 Seahawks fans in attendance then drowned out the continuing exchange for a few moments on my audio digital recorder. As the exchange became clear again, Sherman contended Kraft was the “first person” to call Roger Goodell to offer support when the Ray Rice scandal blew up all to hell in September.

 SHERMAN: C’mawn, c’mawn, who was the first person to call Roger Goodell? C’mawn, give it to me. Give it to me. You’re not doing your research … (I can’t) have a discussion with someone who has no information. You don’t have any information. I have all the research. I’m doing your job for you. You’re making it difficult to have a discussion … Was (Kraft) the first person to call Roger Goodell to talk about the Ray Rice situation, or wasn’t he?

BUEHLER: No, he wasn’t.

SHERMAN: He wasn’t? You know that? Did you do your research? C’mawn … Did you do your research? I wish this could be a better debate, but the levels aren’t there for you.

 With that, Sherman took another question.

 

 

The seven words you can say on TV
… if you’re Marshawn Lynch

SUPER

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Remember George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on TV?” Best we not go there.

But here are the only seven words Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was willing to say, time and again, on Tuesday at his own podium at Super Bowl XLIX Media Day:

“I’m here so I won’t get fined.”

Lynch answered every question with those seven words during his five-minute news conference, which he cut off about 55 minutes early during the ostensible hour-long session for the Seahawks team with thousands of reporters and cameramen at over-stuffed US Airways Center.

Lynch’s notorious dislike of talking to the press seems to become more intense, and more passive-aggressively unhelpful, with every mandated session.

Hundreds of reporters and cameramen swamped his stage (see my photo, below). Lynch wore a ball cap and dark sunglasses for his brief stint.

Outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman supports Lynch’s stance.

“I don’t think (players) should be obligated any more than the commissioner is obligated to speak to the media,” Sherman said at his podium.

“I think that if players are going to be obligated to speak to the media, then every one of the NFL personnel should be obligated to speak to the media weekly, and that’s not the case.”

That’s correct. An NFL head coach must be available to talk  to reporters at least four days per week during the season. But not every team holds a weekly news conference with even the offensive and defensive coordinators, let alone with seldom-available position coaches.

General managers are available even less often in some cities, and player personnel directors rarer still.

“It’s unfortunate,” Sherman said.

At that, we went over to see Seahawks GM John Schneider — who seldom makes himself available to talk to the press. We asked him what he thinks of Sherman’s suggestion that all NFL personnel should be made to talk to the press as often as players.

“I’m totally against that,” Schneider said, chuckling. “No, I understand where he’s coming from. He has his opinion, so that’s fine.”

Sherman said the league should be more flexible to appease players such as Lynch who are chronically uncomfortable talking to the press.

“Every team should be forced to present certain players (to the press) — obviously a few of them,” Sherman said.

“If someone is uncomfortable in front of the media and uncomfortable answering questions and things like that, then you have to find a way to accommodate (them).”

SUPER