Whenever an NFL game is labeled a Super Bowl rematch, it’s often a reach, a hyperbolic way to get butts in the seats and eyes on the flatscreen.
Especially in a league as transient as the NFL, which always lives up to its haunting acronym, ‘Not For Long,’ where there’s a turnstile planted at every position except quarterback and head coach.
But Sunday night’s game, between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks lives up to the hype and handle as a high-end rematch between recent Super Bowl champions and current Super Bowl contenders.
First, we have two iconic coaches still at the peak of their powers, even deep into their AARP memberships. Despite their contrasting looks, Pete Carroll, the eternally youthful coach, is actually older then Bill Belichick, who speaks with the low-key cadence of the elder statesman.
And we have the quarterbacks. You could argue that Tom Brady remains on the top of the totem pole because his opponent on Sunday, Russell Wilson, made a single, errant throw at the worst possible moment of his career. That two-yard slant at the goal line, which was famously picked off by Malcolm Butler, creates much of the space between the two in the NFL hierarchy. Had Carroll simply handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch, Russell and the Seahawks would be the sport’s preeminent club, with two world titles in the last three years.
Instead, the Patriots (7-1) are rolling toward their seventh Super Bowl appearance, and perhaps their fifth Lombardi Trophy, while Seattle (5-2-1) took a year to regroup and recoup its mojo.
Indeed, many see this Sunday’s game in New England as both a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX and a preview of the big game in Houston on February 5. Many of the main characters are still in place. Beyond the head coach and quarterback, you’ve got Seattle’s bone-crunching defense, led by Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. All of them already play with a chip on their shoulder, and could carry a cinderblock into Foxborough.
Likewise, New England is more than Brady’s high cheekbones and supermodel wife. The Super Bowl MVP (Butler) will be on the field, as will be stalwart slot receiver Julian Edelman. And of course, Brady’s nuclear weapon, Rob Gronkowski, will be lumbering across the middle, a matchup nightmare for any defense, even one as gifted as Seattle’s.
These respective units are pretty much were you’d expect them. Through eight games, the Seahawks have surrendered 134 total points (16.8 PPG), just eight behind Minnesota for the NFC’s fewest. Out of 32 NFL clubs, only the Arizona Cardinals (5) have given up fewer touchdown passes than the Seahawks (6). Seattle has surrendered 12 total TD, tied with the Minnesota for best in the NFL. And they are third in the league in sacks, with 27.
New England’s pyrotechnic offense is ranked eighth in the NFL in points per game (27.1) and seventh in total yards per game (380.2). They’ve done it with atypical balance, as well, ranking eighth in rushing yards per game (116.4), and ninth in passing (263.9).
But the Pats are virtually tied with Seattle for second in scoring defense, yielding 16.5 points per game. They have done so quietly, with a modest turnover margin (+3), which is tied with five clubs for eighth in the NFL. And they have struggled getting to the opposing quarterback, with a paltry 13 sacks, which is 28th in the league.
As always, the Patriots are maddeningly consistent and prepared. They may not win every game, but they rarely lose games they should win, and are never embarrassed on the gridiron. Their only loss this season came when they started third-string QB Jacoby Brissett.
And since Brady returned from his celebrated suspension, he’s been flawless, with 12 TD, 0 INT and an unblemished record (4-0). Wilson has accorded himself rather well, even as the world sees he’s clearly not his normal, nimble self.
This is a game for the fans, even those who don’t live or die with either team. No need for a narrative or trumped-up vitriol. These teams don’t have to loathe each other for us to love this contest. The winner doesn’t get a Lombardi Trophy, but it could tell us who has the best chance to win it.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.