The New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks will square off in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. Here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to watch.
1. Tom Brady vs. Russell Wilson
Brady, a classic pocket quarterback, scans the field, freezes defensive backs with his eyes and fires spirals after locating the open receiver. He's aiming to tie Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with his fourth Lombardi Trophy. Brady ranks first in NFL history with 20 playoff victories heading into his sixth Super Bowl.
An older quarterback at 37 years old, Brady's arm strength, experience and competitiveness remain at the NFL's gold standard. Although Brady isn't swift afoot, he has great lateral movement to slide in the pocket to find passing lanes while under pressure.
Wilson won his first Super Bowl last year against the Denver Broncos. He is 10-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in his career, including outdueling Peyton Manning in the big game a year ago. At 5 feet 11, Wilson is a mobile, undersized quarterback who's poised to cash in with a blockbuster contract this offseason that's expected to be in the $120 million range that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco received after winning the Super Bowl in 2013.
Although Wilson is a younger quarterback at age 26, he's an accomplished one with 9,950 career passing yards, 72 touchdowns and 26 interceptions and has six wins in seven career playoff games. Wilson threw four interceptions against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game, but he still managed to win the game in overtime.
Wilson and the Seahawks defeated the Patriots, 24-23, during an Oct. 14, 2012 game in which he passed for 293 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie to lead a comeback from a 13-point deficit. In that game, Brady completed 36 of 58 passes for 395 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Where Brady and Wilson differ most is experience in big games, but each is an accomplished quarterback who should be the biggest factor in his team's success.
2. Marshawn Lynch
Adamant about not sharing his thoughts in interviews and often fined by the NFL for his actions, the Seahawks' bullish running back isn't silent on the field.
Lynch, who is capable of taking over games, has rushed for 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns this season and was dominant in the NFC championship game. He gained 157 yards and a touchdown in an epic comeback win over the Packers.
The Patriots will need extra defenders to crowd the line of scrimmage to contain Lynch, but the biggest key is tackling him. That's easier said than done. Lynch has rare tackle-breaking ability and doesn't slow down on contact, allowing him to maintain his speed in the open field and create big plays.
The Patriots likely will have athletic linebacker Jamie Collins shadow Lynch throughout the game. Lynch's determination to not be tackled is a huge intangible factor.
3. Legion of Boom
Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' talkative star cornerback, intercepted Brady in the game between the teams in 2012 and taunted Brady during and after the game. Sherman and his secondary teammates will look to gain the final word again Sunday.
Although Sherman has an elbow injury and safety Earl Thomas has a shoulder injury, both are set to play. Besides the excellent coverage skills of Sherman and Thomas, the Seahawks have big hitters in the secondary headlined by safety Kam Chancellor.
Chancellor set the tone in the Super Bowl a year ago when he crushed Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas across the middle. The Patriots are resilient and tough, but the Seahawks' intensity and physicality can definitely take a toll and leave a few bruises.
4. Rob Gronkowski
The Patriots' fun-loving tight end is the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, a distinction he earned when he came back from an injury-plagued 2013 season to catch 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Gronkowski, a matchup nightmare, is big, strong, fast and sure-handed at 6 feet 7, 265 pounds.In playoff wins over the Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, Gronkowski has caught 10 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
The Seahawks will devote a lot of resources to try to contain Gronkowski. An underrated aspect of Gronkowski's game is his intelligence. He has a knack for finding open seams in coverage. That isn't just instincts. That goes back to film study.
5. Michael Bennett
In two playoff games this year, Brady has completed 56 of 85 passes for 593 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. A key stat: Brady has been sacked only three times.
The Seahawks' greatest hope of harassing Brady is defensive end Michael Bennett.
Bennett leads the Seahawks with seven sacks. He also rushes from the inside and is a difficult blocking assignment wherever he lines up.
The Seahawks had 37 sacks during the regular season to rank 20th in the NFL, but they have only three sacks in the playoffs so far.
Brady was only sacked 21 times during the regular season. If Brady has a lot of time, even a great secondary like the Seahawks can prove vulnerable.
The Seahawks will need a big game out of Bennett to get Brady off his favorite throwing spots.