The New England Patriots travel to Seattle today looking to earn much more than just another regular season victory. Over the past few weeks, in games against the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills, the Patriots have reattached the mantra of being the best offense in the NFL to their team. However, in Seattle the Seahawks pride themselves on a defense that is giving up just 14 points per game.
Not only are the Seahawks only giving up the equivalent of two touchdowns on every outing, they also lead the league giving up the least amount of yards and have already dismantled the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers' defenses at home this year. If the Patriots can go into CenturyLink Field and dominate this defense, then they will be the most feared offense in the NFL.
What makes that task even more difficult than what it appears to be on the surface, is that the Seahawks are an incredibly physical team who have the ability to take away the Patriots' mismatch advantages that they enjoy against most teams. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are two of the biggest cornerbacks in the NFL, but they could also be the two best. Sherman and Browner both have the agility to move with Wes Welker or the size to handle Rob Gronkowski.
Sherman is most likely going to spend the day attached to the hip of Brandon Lloyd, while Browner will instead see a lot of Aaron Hernandez, if he plays. That would leave Gronkowski looking to overcome Kam Chancellor while Marcus Trufant will likely spend a lot of time on Welker. Chancellor is an outstanding strong safety who plays as big as anyone, and is as big as anyone. The Seahawks play a lot of man coverage and won't be intimidated out of doing so by that matchup.
The only worrisome aspect of the home team's coverage is Welker. Marcus Trufant is a good cornerback, but won't be able to stick with Welker in the slot on his own. The Seahawks will instead look to give Trufant help with athletic linebacker KJ Wright and superstar safety Earl Thomas. Whatever combinations Welker sees, he is in for a much tougher day than he has seen in recent weeks.
In recent weeks, the Patriots have abused teams with their running game when their opponents came out in nickel packages. That shouldn't happen against the Seahawks who have incredible talent upfront. Brady will likely use a lot of the no-huddle to keep the Seahawks from rotating their deep defensive line group, but having players like Chris Clemons, Jason Jones and Brandon Mebane out there allow the team to shut down the running game without sacrificing the pass rush. Jones is listed as a backup, but this is the type of game where his talents at defensive tackle could be huge instead of defensive end.
The Patriots will need to get another stout performance from their offensive line in this game. While the talent upfront may not be overwhelming, the coverage on the back end is good enough to give their defensive line time to get to Brady. If the Seahawks get the Patriots behind the down and distance marker, then they will be able to unleash Bruce Irvin who is a major threat in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.
Testing the offensive line's ability to communicate and avoid snap penalties will be greater than their actual performance blocking in this game. The crowd noise alone in Seattle has tackled a few quarterbacks in the past.
If things look bleak on offense this week, defensively the Patriots should be relatively sound even without rookie Donta Hightower. Hightower will miss the game with an injury, but the Seahawks offense is so limited it shouldn't make a difference. Starting rookie quarterback Russell Wilson still hasn't found his comfort level, and his height appears to significantly be affecting his ability to throw from the pocket consistently. Considering how tough it is for rookie quarterbacks against Bill Belichick defenses in the first place, adding in an anxious pair of feet could be a recipe for disaster.
The Seahawks are heavily reliant on Marshawn Lynch's rushing ability, but the Patriots have been very good against the run this year. Vince Wilfork and company upfront shouldn't have an issue handling the Seahawks' offensive line, while the linebackers and safeties need to rely on technique and teammates to bring Lynch down.
While they need Lynch to carry the offense, the Patriots do have to worry about the Seahawks receivers. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate are very talented possession receivers, while Braylon Edwards and Sidney Rice in particular present matchup problems. Rice is the main problem. Despite Devin McCourty's recent good performances, he repeatedly gave up deep balls against the Buffalo Bills that were underthrown before turning into interceptions. Whatever can be said about Russell Wilson, arm strength is not an issue.
If Wilson comes out firing confidently, Rice could be in for a huge game against McCourty. Rice is a very physical receiver who can come down with the ball in the endzone or beat you deep with his pace. He may not be the most polished or reliable receiver, but his big play potential is could be decisive in a game that will have two defenses that match up well with the offenses.
The Patriots have proven that they can sweep past lesser opposition so far this season, but in a hostile environment and after a long trip, they won't be playing against lesser opposition today. Today is when we find out the most about the 2012 New England Patriots.