With the New England patriots claiming a thoroughly entertaining Super Bowl on Sunday night, Paul O’Dwyer looks at where the game was won and lost.
Super Bowl XLIX and the Lombardi Trophy belong to the New England Patriots with a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks. But did they win it, or did the Seattle Seahawks lose it? The game itself, got off to an inauspicious start by comparison with the tumultuous build up. Thanks to the “Deflate-gate” controversy, anyone with even a passing interest in the sport is now an expert in pounds per square inch as a measure of ball pressure. As they were plagued by questions of impropriety, from Quarterback Tom Brady right through the organisation to Coach Belichick and owner Robert Kraft, the Patriots displayed remarkable focus on the real task at hand.
On the other side line, the Seahawks were by no means without problems of their own. The infamous “Legion of Boom” secondary defence was severely hampered with dislocated shoulder, torn elbow ligaments, and knee damage among the injuries listed. As ever, the fearless bunch was all present and correct for game time.
Following a cautious opening, both sides traded a pair of touchdowns each in the second quarter. The Seahawks would have been the happier of the two to go in at 14-14 at the half, having regained parity with just six seconds left on the clock.
As is often the case, Seattle seized the initiative following the extended halftime interval. They put together two impressive drives punctuated by their second interception of the night against Brady. Just the invitation the future Hall of Famer needed to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. He dragged his team, first within 3 points, and then to a 4 point lead by reeling off pass after pass to receivers Edelman and Gronkowski. The Patriots secured the lead with just over two minutes of regulation remaining. Enter Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the Seattle offense. What followed will go down in the annals of Super Bowl history.
Taking almost the opposite approach to Brady, Wilson took chunks of yardage, splitting out the indomitable Lynch as a receiver to good effect. Needing nothing less than a touchdown Wilson aired out a long pass to Jermaine Kearse, being covered by New England’s fifth choice, rookie cornerback Malcom Butler. Butler appeared to have broken the play up, displaying extraordinary length and quickness in coverage, but in a cruel twist of fate he merely deflected the ball onto the knee of the prone Kearse who gleefully accepted his second bite at the cherry.
With over a minute to play, the Seahawks needed just 6 more yards to get the go-ahead score. Lynch got 5 of those on the very next play yet another brutal example of his immense physicality in short yardage situations. Curiously, New England elected not to stop the clock with a timeout at this juncture, instead allowing time to run down to just 26 seconds.
If ever there was a moment for Lynch to display “Beast Mode” to the world, this was it, but he would never be given the chance. Instead, Wilson dropped back and fired a bullet towards Ricardo Lockette on a slant route, a great route designed for goal-line man-coverage.
Sport has a mystifying habit of creating heroes out of villains when you least expect it. Having given up the long pass to set up this play, Malcolm Butler was again the defender in coverage. This time, however, he trusted his instincts and jumped the route, not only to bat away the pass, but to snag an interception and all but end the game. The player who went undrafted last May, considered implicitly to be outside the best 256 players emerging from college football last year, had turned up to make what was undoubtedly the most important play he will ever make in his career.
Even before the ensuing kerfuffle caused by an over-zealous Seattle defence, which hadn’t expected to re-enter the game, was done, social media was abuzz with accusations: “You have to run the ball here, you got (sic) Lynch in the backfield” or “Has Coach Pete Carroll just made the worst play in Super Bowl history?” Well, the short answer is no. Before that, let’s consider a more controversial call by Carroll in the same game.
With just 6 seconds remaining in the second quarter the Seahawks had advanced rapidly to the 11 yard line of the Patriots. The sensible option would be to take the (almost) guaranteed field goal from close range to tighten things up before halftime. But the Super Bowl is no time for the sensible option. Playing not to lose is never going to earn you the right to call yourself a World Champion. Carroll put the ball in Wilson’s hands and asked him to make a quick pass. If he couldn’t get a completion, he was to end the play before time expired. Obliging, he floated a lovely back-shoulder pass to Chris Matthews and somehow ensured that Seattle went in level, but with a healthy dose of momentum.
In the days since, most have offered staunch opinions declaring that not running the ball was madness. In truth, there is no such thing as the “correct call”. Had Seattle run the ball and failed to break through the 8 New England defenders with just 6 blockers, then they would have had to use their final timeout and try run again. By passing the ball, they did two things: they established the pass as a legitimate threat in an attempt to manoeuvre some room in the next play by making New England defend both passing and rushing threats and they also guaranteed they would have time for 3 plays before time expired as an incomplete pass would have stopped the clock. “But he was obviously likely to throw a pick”. Wrong. In 109 passing attempts from the 1-yard line this season, 66 touchdowns were thrown and just 1 interception….which came on this very play. Ultimately young Butler came up with the biggest play of his life, and one which earned Tom Brady his fourth ring, his first in 10 long years.
Spare a thought for the other breakout star of the evening, Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews, who until December was working for his father in Foot Locker as no team would take him on. With exactly zero receptions in the NFL before the night began he produced a stellar display and was so nearly the unlikely hero. Instead, that honour belongs to Butler, who has been promised the MVP truck awarded to Brady at the end of the game. After all, Brady already has three, it’s not like he needs another! Having cemented his place at the very top of the game not only was Brady elated, but also relieved. Having cut a disconsolate figure on the side line as he watched helplessly on, his face dropped as he saw the final play unfold.
Brady and Belichick reign supreme once more. Seattle came painstakingly close to securing an unlikely repeat, they are hurting, and they play most dangerously with a chip on their shoulder. This moment belongs to the Patriots, but Seattle will be back. Here’s to watching them both go at it again next season.