Super Bowl XLIX promises to be a bruising clash of cultures as the New England Patriots take on the reigning champions Seattle in Phoenix, Arizona tonight.
The free-wheeling, fast-talking Seahawks may be the holders but they are very much the upstarts coming up against the American football aristocrats of New England. A Patriots victory will confirm the greatest dynasty of the last 30 years with a fourth Super Bowl win, while a Seattle win will complete the ascendancy of a new generation.
The Seattle coach, Pete Carroll, is a tanned Californian with an open manner and an easy smile, in stark contrast to the dour taskmaster he will face, the legendary Bill Belichick, coaching in his sixth Super Bowl. Carroll’s players love him and their loyalty is beyond question. He lets them be who they are, boisterous, brash and loud, and they respond with an intensity and passion that has engulfed the Pacific North West.
The most obvious example is Marshawn Lynch, a ferocious running back with the feet of a ballet dancer, universally known by his nickname, “Beast Mode”. Lynch arrived in Seattle from Buffalo four years ago with a reputation for being difficult and a history of legal problems. He has thrived in the open atmosphere that Carroll creates and has become one the NFL’s top backs, with a taste for improbable touchdown runs from his own half that are known for creating minor seismic events in the area surrounding CenturyLink Field in Seattle as the fans celebrate.
Seattle’s quarterback is a young tyro by the name of Russell Wilson, an unheralded third round draft pick when Seattle selected him in 2012, considered at 5ft 11in to be too short to be successful in a league where the average quarterback is at least 6ft 3in, but Carroll saw greatness in Wilson and immediately made him the starting play caller. He has been richly rewarded for his bold decision.
The Seahawks went to the play-offs in Wilson’s rookie year and then won the Super Bowl last season by crushing the fancied Denver Broncos. He has become the face of the franchise and one of the NFL’s most popular players, his No.3 shirt regularly being the highest selling across the USA. Wilson’s dynamic and mobile style on the field, combined with his personal charisma, compelling personal history and good looks have made him a star to rival Tom Brady, the Patriots QB, and he will become the NFL’s highest-paid player on completion of his rookie contract this summer.
The Seahawks rode into the Super Bowl on the back of one of the greatest comebacks in NFL play-off history. Trailing 19-7 to the Green Bay Packers with five minutes remaining, Wilson threw his fourth interception of the day, by far the worst performance of his young career. But Seattle’s mighty defence made another stop and Wilson somehow recovered his poise to lead his team to an unlikely overtime victory. So composed during his three seasons in the NFL, Wilson broke down at the end of the game and sobbed during his post-game TV interviews on the field while paying tribute to his late father. The Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” defence have led the NFL for the last three seasons and will be looking forward to matching up to Brady and his immense tight end, Rob Gronkowski. “Gronk” has feasted on defences all year, too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs to cover and he is Brady’s favourite target.
However, tonight he faces Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s devastating strong safety, one of the few who can match Gronkowski physically, and the confrontation is potentially epic. Chancellor’s enormous hits set the tone in last year’s Super Bowl and he will be looking to punish Gronkowski on the crossfield slant runs that the Patriot thrives on.
“He damages people’s souls,” said Chancellor’s defensive team-mate, Richard Sherman, after his MVP performance against Carolina earlier in the play-offs and the Seahawks will need another dominant performance from him.
Seattle will lean heavily on Lynch and their defence but, if things are not going according to plan, look for Wilson to take off on his own and perhaps scamper his way to a second Super Bowl, and he and his young team-mates to become the bold new face of the NFL.