One of professional football's greatest defenses will try to unplug the sports's best battery in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium.
For the second consecutive season, the big game will feature the No. 1 seed in each conference as the reigning Super Bowl champion and current NFC kingpins, the Seattle Seahawks, who have made defense cool in the ultimate offensive era, face off with the AFC champion New England Patriots, who sport perhaps the best coach/quarterback tandem in NFL history.
"There are 32 teams that started and now there are two remaining," said Pats quarterback Tom Brady, the NFL all-time leader with 20 postseason wins and 49 playoff touchdown passes. "We're trying to be the one that finishes off the season the way you want to, the way we wanted to from the start of the year."
Doing that will require New England, which will be making its record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance, to overcome quite a bit of controversy,
A week of talking about how the Patriots have been a model of consistency under owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady was overtaken by everyone's newfound knowledge of PSI.
The NFL, of course, reportedly found that 11 of the 12 balls used by the Patriots during a 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game were underinflated by two pounds of air pressure per square inch.
That has sparked some finger pointing and an investigation while also allowing detractors of the Patriots to rewind to "Spygate," the infamous 2007 incident in which New England was found guilty of videotaping defensive signals used by the New York Jets.
Belichick went on the offensive last weekend, defending his team of any wrong doing.
"At no time was there any intent -- whatsoever -- to try and compromise the integrity of the game," Belichick said. "I believe now, 100 percent, that I have personally and (the Patriots) have absolutely followed every rule to the letter."
The Pats coach also felt the need to remind everyone that it was talent that got his team to this point.
"This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season," he said. "We won two games in the playoffs against two good football teams. The best team in the postseason, that's what this team is. I know that because I've been with them every day and I'm proud of this team."
He should be because New England will be matching Dallas and Pittsburgh for the most Super Bowl berths in league history and are aiming to become the sixth team with at least four Super Bowl titles, a distinction that was denied to them by losses to the New York Giants in the title game in both 2008 and 2012.
The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since claiming back-to-back titles in 2004-05. No other team has won consecutive championships since and the Pats will be looking to deny the Seahawks from doing it this year.
The Patriots didn't look like contenders early, especially after a disastrous 41-14 loss at Kansas City on Sept. 29 which dropped the club to 2-2. Questions about Brady being in the latter stages of his brilliant career surfaced after being limited to 159 yards passing while getting picked off twice by the Chiefs.
Brady responded the next game in a win over Cincinnati, logging 292 passing yards and a pair of scores while allowing the run game to rack up 220 yards.
That victory kicked off a seven-game win streak of the Pats, a span that saw them become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive games by 20 or more points, each against an opponent with a record of at least three games above .500.
"I mean, we rallied," said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who rebounded to have a solid season after appearing in only four games during the 2013 season because of an Achilles injury. "One thing we always say is, 'No matter what we go through, just stick with one another.' That's exactly what we did. So it didn't surprise me. It was something we had to go through, we went through. I think we handled it pretty well as a team and benefited from it."
Offense played a big part in New England's surge, with the club averaging just 20 points per game during the 2-2 start. The Brady-led Pats, though, went 10-2 after that while averaging 29.5 points per game over that stretch.
Perhaps Brady just needed time to get back on the same page as talented tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was limited to just seven games in '13 due to a host of injuries.
Gronkowski had just 13 receptions for 147 yards with three touchdowns over the first four games, but had six catches for 100 yards versus the Bengals and ended the campaign with 1,124 yards on 82 catches with 12 TDs in 15 games.
"It's awesome and an unbelievable feeling to be going back to the Super Bowl," Gronkowski said. "I know this team has worked hard all year and we've stuck together as a team." Then there is the defense, which brought back safety Patrick Chung and traded for linebacker Akeem Ayers while also bringing in former Pro Bowl cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, an ex-Seahawk.
The physical Browner won a Super Bowl with Seattle last season and helped bring an edge to a defense that ended up yielding 20 points per game this season.
Revis is, well, still playing like Revis.
"I think we added two, you know, really good players," said star safety Devin McCourty. "I think when you do that of course you get better, and I think those two guys have done a good job of being leaders and fitting into the group. So I think we definitely got better on the field, but I thought we got two really good guys, too. They've showed the younger guys, direction, how to become good players, and it's been joy to play with them, too."
Still, the focus will be on Belichick and Brady, both for their success of having won 20 postseason games together and for the past and current controversies surrounding the club.
"To have an opportunity to play in this game is really unbelievable," said Brady. "I never thought I'd have the experience to play in one of these. To think that it's my sixth time, I can't imagine that I'd think I'd ever play anything professionally. Certainly to make the Super Bowl is a pretty amazing experience. To do it once and then six times is very, very special."
The Seahawks, meanwhile, didn't waiver in putting together a quest for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Winning the Lombardi Trophy -- which Seattle did last year with a rout of the Denver Broncos -- is never easy and returning to the title game is even more difficult.
"Well, there's 31 other teams - that's why it's hard," said quarterback Russell Wilson. "You have some great teams out there, obviously, and great players. We've found ways to just feed off one another and make plays when we needed to and be clutch, but also be consistent in our approach and the way we practice and the way we play games."
That consistent approach enabled Seattle to return to the game despite no real notable additions to its roster in the offseason, while allowing more than a few useful cogs to take their talents elsewhere.
The Seahawks' sturdy defense saw the departure of Browner as well as 15-game defensive line starter Red Bryant, pass rusher Chris Clemons and reserve corner Walter Thurmond.
And for a team not known for lighting it up through the air, the Seahawks allowed wide receiver Golden Tate to join the Detroit Lions via free agency and weren't done tinkering in-season either, trading the talented but enigmatic Percy Harvin to the New York Jets.
"You have to go through that process and make the choices," said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, who is 7-2 in the postseason with the 'Hawks. "We lost some really good players from last year's team and we knew that we were losing some heart and soul guys. But, they were the decisions that we had to make to make the choices to move ahead and also to continue to reward the guys."
Carroll also admitted that trading Harvin wasn't the most popular move among the club and locker room, but it was one the Seahawks had to make.
"We just thought it was better for our team to move on where we had come from in a sense," said Carroll. "We went back to more of the format that had gotten us here and it just seemed like the right idea and the right thought. ... There was a big impact of that, but we had to endure that and since we've come out of it we've found what we were looking for really in that decision."
Seattle was 3-2 in five games with Harvin in the lineup and lost 28-26 to the St. Louis Rams in its first game following the trade. But, Carroll showed he knew what he was doing despite the loss, with Wilson passing for 313 yards and wide receiver Doug Baldwin stepping up with seven receptions for 123 yards.
And when all was said and done, the Seahawks won nine of 10 down the stretch and found themselves right where they were last season: owners of the league's top defense, rush attack and once again champions of the NFC West.
The late run also included an impressive six-game win streak to end the regular season which featured two victories each over heated-rivals San Francisco and Arizona to lock up the NFC West crown.
Over the Seahawks' final six regular-season games, the club allowed a minuscule 6.5 points and 202 yards per game while collecting 24 sacks. It did not allow a point in the fourth quarter and yielded only 13 in the second halves during the six-game run.
Oh, and the 'Hawks outscored their opponent 134-39 over the win streak.
"I think early on we got to the point where we were trying to be too perfect," middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "We had to go back to realizing that it's not about perfection, it's about having fun and enjoying that time you have with your brothers. Once we got back to that, we really got going."
Seattle is just the 12th team to return to the Super Bowl after winning the title the previous season, and had to pull off an epic comeback in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers to do it.
Trailing 16-0 midway through the third quarter and then down 19-7 with only 2:13 remaining, Seattle scored 15 points in 44 seconds to go ahead, though the Packers would force overtime with a 48-yard field goal with 14 seconds to go.
That is when Wilson finally shook off his four-interception performance by coming up big when it mattered, hitting wideout Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown with 11:41 remaining in OT and perhaps creating some momentum that will favor the Seahawks.
"If you remember a year ago, we had a fairly rousing game against the San Francisco 49ers to finish off last year and everything worked out just fine," said Carroll. "We have a way of dealing with the ups and downs and a way that we approach it that I'm hopeful we've put it into place already where it should be."
"It's the character of the men that we have on our football team," added Wilson. "The relentless drive to be successful for each other and just be grateful for the opportunity that we have, the gratefulness that we have in our room and for each other is unbelievable. We really care about each other. We work for each other."
New England is 3-4 all-time in Super Bowls but has lost its past two appearances, Super Bowls (XLII, XLVI). Before winning last year Seattle dropped its lone other appearance in the big game, a 21-10 setback to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.
The two teams have never met before in the postseason and have split 16 previous regular-season game with the last one being the now famous "U Mad Bro?" game when Wilson threw a go-ahead 46-yard TD pass with just over a minute left in Seattle's 24-23 home win on Oct. 14, 2012.
A rookie at the time , Wilson threw for 293 yards with three TDs to rally the Seahawks from 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Brady finished with 395 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, one of them by . Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who taunted Brady after the contest with "U Mad Bro?" query.
"To go back to my rookie season, that seems like forever ago," recalled Wilson. "But back in my rookie season, playing against the Patriots, I truly think that was one of the biggest games for me personally, especially being able to come back against a great team. That was a huge comeback for us.
"I think that was kind of a momentum starter for us for the past three years. The Patriots are always on, they're always ready to go, so we're going to have to play our best football, that's for sure."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Super Bowl XLIX features the NFL's top two teams in point differential with New England outscoring its opponents by 155 points and the Seahawks about two touchdowns behind at plus-140.
Seattle is fueled by its impressive running game and specifically the zone- read where Wilson can read the back-side defensive end and either keep it if the defender crashes inside or hand it to Lynch if the defender stays disciplined and in his gap.
From there, the wide receiver bubble screen is also in play as is the fake to play-action and each scenario is capable of succeeding because both Wilson and Lynch can gash you on the ground. Wilson ran for 849 yards at 7.2 per clip in the regular season, while Lynch piled up 1,306 with 13 TDs and is a proven postseason commodity.
Lynch rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown in the NFC championship win over Green Bay and his 815 career playoff rushing yards are the most in franchise history. Since the 2011 season, Lynch's 6,039 rushing yards and 55 rushing touchdowns are both the most in the NFL.
The passing game isn't nearly as dominant for Seattle but Wilson's ability to extend plays with his mobility make things far trickier because he has an innate ability to keep his eyes downfield and make the big play when things break down.
"He has an instinctiveness; he just knows where people are," Belichick said when discussing Wilson, who threw two TD passes in last year's big game. "I can't really define it. You can't really coach it."
Wilson's top target is wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who had 106 receiving yards in the NFC Championship Game, his fourth playoff game in a row with either 100-or-more receiving yards or a touchdown catch. Kearse, meanwhile, has now caught a touchdown pass in four consecutive postseason games.
For New England's defense, the addition of Revis has really bolstered things as the lockdown corner capable of eliminating one side of the football field, while enabling Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to be much more inventive with their various blitz and coverage schemes.
Although the Pats are semi-regulars in the big game, this is Revis' first trip and he brings an added dimension which makes New England a far more well- rounded team.
"Everything is surreal right now," Revis said of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time. "Actually I'm asking some of the guys who have been here that's on this team, You know, "what's the process?' Vince (Wilfork) has been helping me. (Devin McCourty) has been helping me. Even (ex-Seahawk Brandon) Browner. I'm just trying to go about the process the best way I can."
Revis will be tackling that process as perhaps the best man-to-man coverage corner in the game. Opponents often assume Belichick will just lock Revis up with their best receiver but the Pats' coach is usually a step ahead and he could use Revis to shadow a lesser threat while rolling bracket coverage to the other side. Neither Baldwin or Kearse should be much of an issue for Revis.
The Seahawks' and Pats' defensive backfields obviously won't be playing each other in Super Bowl XLIX but the comparisons are obvious, as Seattle's group, led by All-Pros Sherman and Earl Thomas, is regarded as the best in football after allowing an NFL-low 185.6 passing yards per game. New England, with Revis, Browner and safety Devin McCourty, is considered a step behind.
Revis is often mentioned with Sherman when a debate over the best cornerback breaks out but it's a little like comparing apples and oranges.
Seattle plays a lot of Cover-3 and Sherman stays on the left side of the field, meaning the opposing offense can avoid any matchup it wants by simply varying the formations. Revis, on the other hand, will shadow a receiver.
There are pluses and minus to each philosophy. Revis supporters point to the fact he is asked to do more but fail to realize his movements mean other lesser players also have to shift and do things they aren't necessarily comfortable with.
"I'm sure people will make comparisons," Sherman said. "They always do. But we play the game two different ways.
"He's plays it more meticulous and more conventional on his technique. Mine is more unorthodox. It's more difficult to replicate what I do on the football field. So it's two different styles to compare. I play my way and he plays his way and both of them are effective."
Revis and Sherman once engaged in a rather epic Twitter war with each proclaiming they were the best corner. These days, it's shifted into more of a mutual admiration society.
"I mean their secondary is one of the best in the league," Revis said of Sherman and Co. "They are making plays for the last couple of years. If you look at it on film, they've definitely made a lot of plays. They play well together and I think that's the key. They are very versatile in what they do and they are a very physical group."
"He's had a great year and he's been doing his job effectively," Sherman countered when discussing Revis. "I like what I've seen from his game."
Pats linebacker Jamie Collins may be the X-factor for his group because he may be asked to spy on Wilson.
Offensively for New England, Brady's been aided by a healthy Gronkowski as well as the late-season addition of running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 281 yards while averaging 4.7 per carry after being cut by Pittsburgh on Nov. 18.
Julian Edelman is the top receiver with 92 catches but he does most of his work from the slot. Brandon LaFell is the lone outside the numbers threat with 74 catches for 953 yards in the regular season.
The NFL's worst-kept secret is that win or lose at Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, will be soon be calling Atlanta home. For now, though, it's all about finishing the job he already has as the steward of football's best defense.
"I think all of us have those experiences where you have to juggle things at the same time," Quinn said at Super Bowl Media Day when asked about his pending job change. "For me, just being here, I am having an absolute blast."
The Seahawks' stop unit led the NFL in scoring defense for the third consecutive season in 2014, becoming the first to accomplish that feat since the famed 1969-71 "Purple People Eaters" of the Minnesota Vikings, and just the third all-time (Cleveland 1953-57).
"It's a great challenge," Brady said. "We're going to play a great team. That's why they're in this game too."
Quinn's unit also became only the fourth team in NFL lore to lead the league in fewest points and yards allowed in back-to-back seasons, and the first since the legendary 1985-86 Chicago Bears.
And the Seahawks D has done all of that in the most offensively-skewed era in pro football history.
"We just honestly try to find unique guys and how fast we can play," Quinn said when describing his philosophy. "Then, within each team, there are unique guys and how you feature the players. Really, it is just about featuring the guys and the roles they can do best."
The unique guys in Seattle are Wagner and members of the best secondary in football, featuring three All-Pro-caliber players in Sherman as well as Thomas and fellow safety Kam Chancellor.
Quinn particularly raved about his last line of defense on Tuesday.
"They are two unique guys: Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are both so different," Quinn said. "Kam Chancellor, we'd all look up at him right now at how big he is. We try to feature him in the things he does best like playing near the line of scrimmage and with Earl Thomas ... he is a speed backer, something that really jumps out in his game. The way he can play the middle of the field and coverages, the closing speed that he has, that is just one good example that you talked about with those guys and try to feature the guys in the best ways.
"With those, it is real clear what they do best."
Sherman and Thomas are both hurting, though, with Sherman nursing an elbow problem and Thomas dealing with a shoulder issue, something former teammate Browner noted.
"At the end of the day, this is about the Super Bowl. I'm gonna tell my teammates, 'Go hit that elbow. Go hit that shoulder. Most definitely. Try to break it if you can,'" Browner said. "You're gonna be my best friend after the game, but I know you want the Super Bowl just as bad as I do."
After being criticized for that Browner backed off a bit.
"Those are my brothers. At the end of the day, there are no hard feelings," Browner said. "It's like in any game. You have a guy that messes his ankle up, you want to tackle him and make sure you land on the ankle. Say a guy messes his shoulder up; you tackle him and land on his shoulder. That's just a part of the game."
SUPER BOWL BANTER
-This will be Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's sixth Super Bowl appearance as a duo, the most ever by a head coach/quarterback tandem.
-Brady will match Mike Lodish for the most Super Bowls for any player and he will surpass John Elway for the most by a QB.
"You have to have a good team," Belichick said when asked about the success he and Brady have had. "There are all the components of it. One guy can't win in this league. All one guy can do is do his job. Tom does his job as well as anybody. I'm so thankful that he's our quarterback. There's nobody I would rather have. He does everything well. And with a lot of other people doing their jobs, well, then you have a good team."
- Seahawks coach Pete Carroll mentored the Patriots before Belichick and guided them to two playoff berths (1997-98) in his three seasons in New England (1997-99).
-Russell Wilson will be the youngest quarterback (26 years, 64 days) to start two Super Bowls and also the first QB to start two Super Bowls in his first three NFL seasons to begin a career. His 36 regular-season wins, six playoff victories and 42 overall wins are all the most by a starting quarterback in his first three NFL seasons to start a career.
"Russell and Tom Brady are both great winners," said Carroll. "Tom has had a long time to prove that. Russell is at the early stages of proving that to the world. But he's got a chance to be similar."
-The Patriots had seven players selected to the Pro Bowl: Brady (10th), wide receiver Julian Edelman (first), kicker Stephen Gostkowski (third), tight end Rob Gronkowski (third), safety Devin McCourty (second), cornerback Darrelle Revis (sixth) and special teamer Matthew Slater (fourth).
-The Seahawks also had seven players selected to the Pro Bowl: safety Kam Chancellor (third), running back Marshawn Lynch (fifth), left tackle Russell Okung (second), cornerback Richard Sherman (second), safety Earl Thomas (fourth), linebacker Bobby Wagner (first) and Wilson (third).
-Each player on the winning team in Super Bowl XLIX will receive $97,000. Each losing player gets $49,000.
-A 30-second commercial for Super Bowl XLIX will cost $4.5 million. In the first Super Bowl, it was $42k.
-The face value ticket prices for Super Bowl XLIX range from $800 to $1,900. Super Bowl I prices were tiered at $6, $8 and $12.
-Super Bowl XLIX will be distributed to more than 180 countries and broadcast in 30 different languages.
-Nielsen is expecting the game to generate over 170 million television viewers while Twitter has estimated over 25 million Tweets are expected to be sent during the game.
This smells like a 50-50 game late into the fourth quarter but it's hard to imagine Seattle following up its poor performance against the Packers with another one. Wilson, meanwhile, is a gaudy 10-0 when starting against quarterbacks who own at least one Super Bowl ring.
That and the added distraction of DeflateGate could give the Seahawks the slight advantage they need to go back-to-back.
"We're looking forward to the opportunity to play a great team in the Patriots with a great coach and a great quarterback," said Wilson. "We have a lot of respect for them and what they do. We're just grateful to have the opportunity."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 23, Patriots 20
-Associate Editor Michael Rushton also contributed to this report.