When: 4:05 p.m. Sunday
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle
TV, radio: CBS, WBZ-FM (98.5)
When the Patriots run
Let’s not let one late-game fumble tarnish the tremendous strides Stevan Ridley has made this season. The emergence of the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder (and there were flashes last season) has transformed New England’s offense into one of the league’s most balanced. Ridley has become one of the NFL’s most productive players thanks to a nifty mix of instincts and youthful exuberance. A decisive, one-cut runner who explodes onto the second level, Ridley runs with balance and power. He rarely goes down on first contact and will dip his shoulder and deliver a blow before he hits the deck. After early comparisons to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, it now appears rookie Brandon Bolden is a Ridley clone. Another 5-11, 220-pounder, Bolden has good vision and instincts, runs hard, and will break tackles. He gets on defenders quickly and will drive smaller bodies back. For all of Ridley and Bolden’s exploits, Danny Woodhead’s 19-yard run on third and 17 against the Broncos was New England’s most impressive play of the season. The versatility of the line to swap between pass protection and smashmouth has been impressive. Seattle has an above-average set of tackles in Alan Branch (6-6, 325) and Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311), who can clog lanes and punish runners. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (rookie is strong and athletic) and wingmen Leroy Hill (he’s mobile and hostile) and K.J. Wright (ditto) are big hitters.
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 165.4 (third)
Seattle defense: 66.6 (third)
When the Patriots pass
It’s never been easy to defend a Tom Brady-led offense, but now that he’s running said offense at warp speed along with the addition of a solid running game, the Patriots are downright scary. Brady’s preparation and ability to process information quickly make him a most dangerous player. There’s a never a guarantee that the play called will be the one executed, once Brady finds a mismatch. And he has built-in mismatches up and down his lineup in tight ends Rob Gronkowski (he’s just so big) and Aaron Hernandez (he’s just so athletic) and slot receiver Wes Welker (he’s just so smart and slippery). Throw in wily veterans Brandon Lloyd (tremendous body control) and Deion Branch (only Brady knows this offense better), plus shifty Danny Woodhead out of the backfield and Brady has more delicious options than a Cheesecake Factory menu. Brady has received excellent protection lately, with tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer improving every week. The Seahawks have a pair of ends who can really get after the quarterback. Bruce Irvin (6 feet 3 inches, 248 pounds) has a wicked first step and tremendous closing speed. He is stronger than he looks, and the rookie never takes a play off. Chris Clemons (6-3, 245) is quick off the snap and keeps churning until the whistle; his hits cause black-and-blues. Seattle’s secondary, led by large corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, is loaded with ball hawks.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 274.0 (ninth)
Seattle defense: 192.0 (fifth)
When the Seahawks run
Marshawn Lynch just keeps getting better. The 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound tailback left his dancing shoes in Buffalo and has morphed into one of the league’s best power runners. Lynch, who was too often an indecisive runner early in his career, now picks creases quickly and blasts his way to the second level with speed and strength. Lynch runs with great balance, agility, and fire. He seems to thrive on contact, and arm tacklers will be left in his wake. Because of his hard-charging, physical style, Lynch is always banged up; he is currently dealing with a cranky back. Rookie Robert Turbin (5-10, 222) is a thick, muscular back who runs low and can absorb hits and fight through them. He lacks quickness and speed, however, and rarely breaks off long gains. Leon Washington is a great change-of-pace runner. He has tremendous quickness and balance, and runs tougher than you’d expect from a 5-8, 203-pounder. Fullback Michael Robinson is a plodder with average blocking skills. Center Max Unger (6-5, 305) is a good athlete with quick hands and a good initial pop, but he lacks strength and will struggle against powerful players (i.e. Vince Wilfork). Guards Paul McQuistan (6-6, 315) is smart and solid. New England’s instinctive and aggressive linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes continue to be demons against the run.Continued...