Patriots Have One Chance to Win Super Bowl XLIX: Fight Seahawks' Fire with Fire

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2015

Kirby Lee/USA Today Images

If there's one lesson NFL fans and coaches can learn from the 2014 playoffs, it's this: You have to play to win.

Time and again this postseason, we've seen coaches who are aggressive, creative and innovative rewarded. The ones who pulled out all the stops pulled off upsets, comebacks and blowout wins. Those who played close to the vest are now playing golf.

Super Bowl XLIX is not only a matchup of two of the best head coaches in the game, but two of the most aggressive coaches in recent NFL history.

Back in 2013, Football Outsiders charted career fourth-down decision-making for all 84 NFL head coaches with at least three full seasons between 1991 and 2012. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick ranked fifth-most aggressive out of the 84, and Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was 13th. We saw this in both teams' postseasons.

Belichick's new wrinkles with formations, eligible receivers and four offensive linemen helped the Patriots complete their two separate 14-point comebacks against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round and blow out the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game.

Carroll's gutsy fake field goal in the NFC Championship Game put the Seahawks on the board after a disastrous first half and served as the game's turning point.

Now, they're facing off in the world's biggest showdown. Will both coaches come out firing, or will they carefully pick their shots?

Bleacher Report NFL insider Jason Cole reports that people who know Carroll's tendencies expect him to call a very aggressive game on defense, especially right out of the gate:

Per Cole, we can expect Carroll to make a "statement" from the opening kickoff, with exotic blitzes and aggressive secondary play to gain an upper hand—much as the Seahawks did against the Denver Broncos in last season's 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII win.

With a big turnover or sack on the Patriots' first offensive drive, the Seahawks offense will be on the front foot—and as we saw in the NFC Championship Game, Seattle's offense is much more effective when controlling the game with possession, rather than playing catch-up.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The Seahawks' always aggressive defense, once it draws first blood, can keep up that relentless, mindless feeding frenzy when they know they can make a mistake without surrendering the lead.

With the Seahawks pass-rushers heading for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at full throttle and the Legion of Boom jamming aggressively at the line and trying to jump routes, a big play early could start a feedback loop of aggression and success, just like Super Bowl XLVIII.

How can the Patriots short-circuit this and get the game back under their control?

The Patriots' top priority should be to avoid first-quarter mistakes. The Broncos' very first play of Super Bowl XLVIII was an errant snap that ended up a safety, giving the Seahawks two points and the ball. It snowballed from there, becoming an avalanche of failure and desperation that buried Peyton Manning, John Fox and the Broncos' championship dreams.

Stephen G. White, a retired NFL defensive end, dove deep into the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams to make his pick for SBNation. He expressed "concerns" about the way the Patriots abandoned the run against the Broncos in 2013's AFC Championship Game:

The Patriots' offense now is accustomed to winning by running the ball first and having everything else come off of that. If they make the same mistake in the Super Bowl and instead turn to a Brady-centered offensive game plan just because the weather is nice, I believe they will end up regretting it just as they did last season.

When I think of the kind of pass rush the Seahawks can generate up front against that Patriots' offensive line rushing four against a pretty stationary Brady, I'm even more convinced that not committing to running the ball would be a huge mistake on Sunday.

I understand the point White's making here. The logic is clear and hard to fault. When the running game is working, abandoning it is dangerous. Passing is inherently more risky, and the Patriots would much rather have the ball in LeGarrette Blount's hands than Marshawn Lynch's.

There are two big, big problems with that.

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 22: Running back LeGarrette Blount #29 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 22, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

One, the Patriots' run game is wildly inconsistent. Blount galloped all over the Indianapolis Colts for 148 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game. However, against the Ravens, Blount had three carries for one yard; the Patriots as a team mustered just 14 yards on 13 carries in that game.

If Blount doesn't run wild from the opening drive, it doesn't make sense to keep feeding him carries. The Patriots will only get so many opportunities to score points against the Legion of Boom (as the Green Bay Packers found out), and wasting drives pounding him into a wall only makes it more likely the Seahawks win.

Two, the Patriots will be playing right into the Seahawks' hands.

If the Seahawks are planning on turning it up to 11 on the opening possession, pinning their ears back and going all out, feeding Blount a heavy diet of carries will lead to some early three-and-outs. With even six to 10 points on the ensuing few possessions, that Seahawks snowball of aggression and success will roll downhill. If that happens, the Patriots are doomed. 

The Patriots' best chance to win Super Bowl XLIX is to play to win.

That's not a new concept. As Brady said back in October (via Rachel G. Bowers of The Boston Globe), being aggressive from the first whistle is the best recipe for winning football games.

"When you get ahead, you can run it, play-action, throw it quick, hold onto it. I think that’s the way to play pro football. … We got to get ahead, we got to stay ahead."

The best way to punish an overly aggressive defense is to throw it over their heads—risk getting burned yourself in order to burn the other team.

For a perfect example, look no further than that divisional-round game against the Ravens, when the Pats abandoned the run and put almost everything in Brady's hands. 

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The third-quarter wide-receiver pass from Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola sidestepped the Ravens' monster front seven and roasted their vulnerable secondary; the 51-yard bomb erased the Ravens' second 14-point lead of the game and set the Patriots up for the eventual win.

A similar trick play, such as a flea-flicker, on the opening possession would likely hit home against a Seahawks secondary hellbent on getting upfield. Not only could that work once, it could rattle the Legion of Boom and give Brady a little more breathing room.

Besides trickeration, Amendola and Rob Gronkowski working in combinations up the seam and going inside to out are the Patriots' best (only?) chances to gain yards and points in chunks against Seattle's incredible defense. That window of opportunity will be open early, when the Seahawks defense is pressing, but it will shut if the Patriots are playing second-half catch-up.

Let's go back to this second-quarter 1st-and-10 from the Patriots' 2012 matchup against the Seahawks:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

First, please forgive the grainy, standard-definition All-22 footage—it's all the NFL offered that season.

Secondly, we see a very familiar scheme: The Seahawks are in Cover 3, with free safety Earl Thomas responsible for a huge swath of the field behind corners playing tight to the line. Strong safety Kam Chancellor is up in the box.

The Patriots are in shotgun to give Brady time against the pass rush, and tight end Aaron Hernandez is lined up as a slot receiver. Another tight end is inside of him but will stay in to block. Nickel corner Marcus Trufant is lined up directly across from Hernandez, and Chancellor is behind Trufant in the second level. Note the massive undefended area behind the far cornerback.

At the snap, Hernandez releases to the outside of Trufant, who stays with him a few steps before passing him off to Chancellor. Here's the moment Brady decides to throw:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Again, this is really tough to see, but bear with me. The wideout to that side sits down in a curl, drawing the cornerback up. Hernandez blew past Trufant, but Chancellor seems to let him by. Thomas isn't in the neighborhood. If Brady finds Hernandez, this is going a long way.

As it happens, Brady overthrew the pass, and Hernandez couldn't adjust to it. This play was there to be made, though. Had the Seahawks blitzed Chancellor, the Patriots had a tight end in to block. Had the tight end and Hernandez been Gronkowski and Amendola, there'd be even more options to pressure the Seahawks secondary.

If being aggressive down the seam works, then the Pats can work on establishing the run, possessing the ball, setting up play action and keeping the Seahawks off balance. At that point, Belichick will have turned the table on Carroll and the Seahawks will be the ones in desperation mode.

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