By Chris Cluff
The New England Patriots have long been one of the league’s best offensive teams under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Despite reinventing themselves seemingly on an annual basis, the one constant has been Brady, and he has driven them to a top-10 ranking in 10 of his 11 previous seasons as QB. They led the league in points and yards in 2007, when Brady threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes and the Patriots became the first team to go 16-0.
Well, here they are again: No. 1 in points and yards as they come to Seattle.
This is the same team that lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl in February, with one major difference: They can run the ball. Using their no-huddle offense, they have pummeled Buffalo and Denver the past two weeks with 498 rushing yards.
Belichick apparently has patterned this new attack off Oregon’s speedy approach to the game.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who faced Oregon while at Stanford, told MyNorthwest.com, “What New England does is similar with the pace. I think it’s different because Oregon had guys running here and motioning there. They would run two or three reads and you didn’t know where the ball was. The Patriots will line up quick, but then they’ll run power.”
While the Patriots’ numbers are gaudy — 439 yards and 33 points per game — their record is just 3-2. And their home loss to Arizona, 20-18 in Week 2, showed that hard-hitting defenses can cause them trouble. With the help of the 12th Man, the league’s No. 1 defense figures to make it very hard on the Patriots to go as fast as they prefer.
The Cardinals held the Patriots to 90 rushing yards on 28 carries and sacked Brady four times. Seattle is the No. 3 rush defense in the league, has 14 sacks in the last three games and figures to make it just as hard on New England as Arizona did.
Coach Pete Carroll says it won’t be easy.
“These guys have had two three-and-outs in five games,” he told reporters. “That will be a major accomplishment if we get them out of there on three plays. I don’t know how that’s going to happen ’cause nobody else can do it. I think they have 101 first downs in the last three weeks, which is an all-time record in a three-week span.”
In their 31-21 win over Denver on Sunday, they had 35 first downs in 90 plays and ran the ball 54 times for 251 yards.
It is hard to imagine them having anywhere near that success against a Seattle defense that seems more likely to do what Arizona and Baltimore did. The Patriots ran for just 77 yards on 34 carries in a 31-30 loss to Baltimore in Week 3.
This game will be in Brady’s hands, and it will be up to the Hawks to get pressure on him (he has been sacked 12 times) and keep Wes Welker (three straight 100-yard games), Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowsi from killing them. Seattle’s linebackers and safeties will be busy.
The Patriots seem poised to become the first team to score more than 20 points against Seattle this season (Arizona won 20-16 in the opener). That means the Seattle offense is going to have to come up with three touchdowns — or get help scoring from the defense and special teams — to win.
The Seahawks certainly cannot hurt themselves on offense as much as they did in Carolina last Sunday, when they turned the ball over three times and negated some big plays with bad penalties.
The Hawks have to take care of the ball. The Pats are tied with Seattle atop the league with nine forced fumbles; they have recovered eight of them, to go with six interceptions, and lead the league with a plus-10 turnover ratio.
“We live off of turnovers. Sometimes we give up a lot of yards, but we feel like any time we can get the ball back into the offense’s hands, good things will happen,” linebacker Jerod Mayo told reporters after forcing two fumbles against the Broncos.
The Pats also are the No. 8 run defense, giving up just 82.2 yards per game, so rookie Russell Wilson probably has to have his best game yet to give Seattle a chance to win.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.