PHOENIX (AP) — Go ahead, pile on the Patriots.
Declare the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era over after they split their first four games this season. Call them cheaters when their footballs lose too much air. Predict the Legion of Boom will bring the hammer down on Rob Gronkowski.
Then jump on the New England bandwagon.
Watch one of the greatest quarterbacks ever lower the pressure on himself with handoffs to big LeGarrette Blount and quick passes to small receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. See the second-best defense in the Super Bowl silence Marshawn Lynch’s running and put the burden on Russell Wilson to move the Seattle Seahawks with his arm and legs.
Finally, concede that the Lombardi Trophy raised by New England owner Robert Kraft on Sunday night is well deserved, no matter how much fans of 31 other teams dislike the leader with the hoodie and the scowl — and his fourth Super Bowl championship as coach of the Patriots.
“No matter what goes on around this game or outside this locker room, whatever it may be, you have to be ready to play,” defensive tackle Vince Wifork said. “We can’t let any distraction alter our course of what we want to be and how we want to do it.”
They want to be champions. How can they do it against the NFL’s best defense?
Start with Brady getting rid of the ball fast to a runner or receiver. Or let Gronkowski occupy two defenders after lining up wide, in the slot or beside a tackle. Or toss in some trickery — maybe a double reverse or even a flea-flicker.
There’s no end to Belichick’s football imagination.
What would he like to establish early?
“What I’d like to establish is the lead,” he said Friday, flashing a rare grin he breaks out in the Super Bowl spotlight as if trying to show there’s more to him than an obsession with Xs and Os and victories.
The Patriots have scored first in just four of their last eight games. But they’ve won six of them, with one of the losses coming in a meaningless regular-season finale.
Never was their comeback ability more critical than when they overcame two 14-point deficits to beat the Baltimore Ravens 35-31 in the divisional playoffs.
Doing that against Seattle will be a tougher challenge.
The Seahawks are the first team to lead the NFL in points and yards allowed for two straight years since Chicago in 1985, when the Bears pummeled the Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl, and 1986. And in their last eight games, the Seahawks have allowed just seven points in the fourth quarter.
Of course, the brainy Belichick probably saved some never-before-seen wrinkles — some might call them deceptions — to catch Richard Sherman and company off guard.
“He knows the game in and out. He’s very detailed and he wants perfection,” said cornerback Darrelle Revis, a major reason for the Patriots’ improved defense in his first season with them. “He’s a winner.”
Belichick has the perfect partner in Brady — a two-time Super Bowl MVP who holds numerous postseason passing records and brings great intensity and intelligence.
“He has the fight, the will and the determination to go out there and destroy anybody who’s in his way,” Revis said.
Sounds a bit like Lynch. But the Patriots defense has been successful in neutralizing an opponent’s most dangerous player.
They did it this season with A.J. Green of Cincinnati, Peyton Manning of Denver, Andrew Luck of Indianapolis (twice), Calvin Johnson of Detroit and Philip Rivers of San Diego.
None, however, is a running back. And Lynch rushed for the fourth-most yards in the NFL and 13 touchdowns.
But New England had the ninth-best run defense and allowed only six rushing touchdowns. So they have the players and the strategy to control Lynch.
“Green Bay did a really good job of that in the NFC Championship in the first quarter or two,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “They really slowed him down. They forced Seattle to throw the ball a lot earlier, more than they wanted to.”
The Packers led 19-7 with just over two minutes left after Wilson had thrown four interceptions. But touchdown runs by Wilson and Lynch gave the Seahawks the lead before Wilson capped the incredible comeback with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse for a 28-22 overtime win.
The Seahawks “primary goal is to put the ball in their playmakers’ hands,” Wilfork said. “When you have Russell Wilson and Marshawn in the backfield together, you have to make sure you account for both of them.”
The Patriots will. They’re disciplined, quick and physical on defense. They’ll chase Wilson down, gang tackle Lynch and use a secondary led by cornerbacks Revis and Brandon Browner, a Seahawk last season, to blanket mediocre receivers.
New England was the NFL’s fourth highest scoring team, averaging 29 points per game. It won’t need that many to deny Seattle a second straight title and win the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 years.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Seahawks 21.