The Manning Bowl has come and gone but even though the Patriots won't be facing another longtime rival/future Hall of Famer in Week 6 when they travel to Seattle to face the upstart Seahawks, that doesn't mean the game won't be a major challenge.
Seattle is home to CenturyLink Field, one of the prettiest - and loudest - stadiums in the NFL. The Seahawks' home crowd certainly does its part to make visitors uncomfortable; their 12th man is among the most intimidating in the league.
Along with the noise comes the Seattle defense, as good as any so far this season. The Seahawks boast the NFL's No. 1 D, allowing just 258.6 total yards per game (just 66.6 on the ground) and are second in scoring D, giving up an average of just 14 points a week.
Luckily for the Pats, the Seahawks offense is as weak as their defense is strong. Beyond star back Marshawn Lynch, there isn't much firepower and under center is a rookie, third-round pick Russell Wilson, who hasn't lived up to much of the hype thrust upon him when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll unexpectedly named him the team's starter during training camp.
There are several keys for the Pats if they want to come away from the Pacific Northwest with their fourth win of the season, but, as Tom Brady said earlier in the week, one of the most important may be getting that famous 12th man to quiet down.
So with that, let's take a look at a few of the more intriguing match ups facing the Pats in their first trip to Seattle since 2008.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
The Seahawks secondary is something of an anomaly in that their corners are giants. Brandon Browner is 6'4", 220. Richard Sherman is 6'3", 195. And strong safety Kam Chancellor fits right in at 6'3", 232, more like a linebacker than a defensive back. Seeing as how the Pats have a bunch of shrimps at wide receiver, the size of Seattle's DBs may pose some problems that the Pats just aren't used to seeing.
It's safe to assume that the big Seattle corners will try to use their size and strength against Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch. Expect to see a good deal of bumping and jamming at the line of scrimmage. What happens next will be up to the Pats. If their receivers can get off of that initial contact cleanly, they'll still most likely be able to get open. Of course, any high throws in tight coverage have to favor the Seahawks' tall corners.
Another interesting aspect of this match up will be the role of the Pats tight ends. Aaron Hernandez could be back in the mix for the Pats and if he is, that will open up more opportunities for everyone, from Welker to Rob Gronkowski, to get open in the middle of the field. Of course, given the Seahawks' fierce pass rush, which starts with speed demon rookie linebacker Bruce Irvin, Gronk may be asked to stay home and pass protect a little more often as well. It will be incumbent on the Pats offensive line (which could be missing either Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer or both) to be on their collective toes all day. Given the pressure that Seattle is capable of bringing combined with the noise from that 12th man, any missed snap counts or even slightly altered assignments could spell trouble.
The possibility of Hernandez returning combined with the success that the Pats have had running the ball could be enough to alter Seattle's basic plan in defending the pass. Will Chancellor play up more often in anticipation of the run? And if he does, how much more room will there be over the middle for Welker, Gronk and potentially Hernandez? The Seahawks pose a great deal of questions for opposing air attacks. But the Pats, given their depth,versatility and aptitude at playing super fast, may have enough answers.
When the Patriots run the ball.
Just under 500 yards rushing over the past two weeks has at least led to some discussion on whether to label the Pats a running team. It may be a bit early to go that far just yet, but if they can run on Seattle (again, allowing just 66.6 yards per game on the ground) the way they ran on Denver and Buffalo, such an assessment will seem more plausible.
Of course, if the Pats can get out and run and do so with the anywhere near the pace at which they played against Denver (89 plays, 35 first downs, a 12 minute advantage in time of possession), they will be able to at least in part neutralize the Seahawks pass rush. And controlling the pace and tempo of the game is huge against such a fast, aggressive defense.
The Seahawks have compiled their league leading stats vs. the run against a handful of teams not exactly lighting the world on fire on the ground. With the exception of Carolina, which they beat last week, none of the other four teams the Seahawks have played rank higher than the bottom third in the league in rushing, with Dallas and Arizona both among the worst four in that category.
The Pats, conversely, are third in the league in rushing, in no small part because of the success they've had in the past two weeks. Their running game will be the toughest the Seahawks have faced this season by far. Something will have to give.
The Pats have to establish the run if they want to win this game. Even if it doesn't really work, at least the threat of it should keep Seattle from getting after Brady as much as it would like. And that threat will allow Brady more time to use play action and work the intermediate to deep middle part of the field.
When the Seahawks run the ball.
Here's the Pats biggest concern for when Seattle has the ball. Lynch has rushed for at least 85 yards in each of the Seahawks' five games and that's for an offense that has problems passing. The only two back to rush for more yards than Lynch's 508 are Kansas City's Jamaal Charles and Houston's Arian Foster and Lynch is picking up 4.5 yards per attempt. He's a bruiser who takes a lot of pressure off of the rookie QB Wilson.
The Pats have been very well adept at slowing down or stopping opposing runners thus far, the most impressive evidence being the total shut down of Buffalo's two stars Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller a couple weeks ago. The guess here is that given Wilson's issues (he's averaging just 6.5 yards per pass attempt, has more picks than TDs and has a 75.2 passer rating for a pass offense ranked next to last in the league), the Pats load up to stop Lynch and try to make Wilson beat them.
This may be easier said than done. The Pats may be missing Dont'a Hightower and Steve Gregory for a second straight week and both of those guys play big roles in defending the run, especially Hightower. And, as much as Wilson has struggled, the Pats secondary has been know to make even the most mediocre of QBs look like stars. Seattle has a big, strong, fast receiver who can make plays down the field in Sidney Rice so you can bet there will be some deep shots in the Seahawks game plan, particularly if they can get Devin McCourty singled up with Rice.
The Seahawks can't keep up with the Pats from an offensive standpoint which means they will almost definitely look to control the clock by running the ball then try to catch the Pats off guard with some deep throws. This is where the Pats are at their weakest by far as we all know, which means they had better be at their best in stopping the Seattle ground attack or else this game could become a dogfight.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 13
This one may take a while to unfold so try not to get too impatient if the score is something like 7-6 or 10-10 come halftime. It may be the Pats' job to wait the Seahawks out, get a good handle of what they're looking to do on both sides and then adjust accordingly. Again, if the Pats can control the tempo as well as they have during the past six quarters, they should be OK. But it seems unlikely they'll be able to score in the kind of bunches against this defense in the way they did against either Denver or Buffalo. Stick with the run, slow down Lynch and and let the game come to them. That should be a perfect recipe to be able to wear the Seattle defense down and come away with a win.