8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Patriots -7, Over/Under: 49.5
Finally, the antidote for the NFL’s primetime ratings slump arrives in the form of arguably the most anticipated Sunday Night Football matchup of the year, as the New England Patriots host the Seattle Seahawks in a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX at Gillette Stadium. It’s safe to say that Seattle (5-2-1, 1st in NFC West) had this one circled on their schedule the moment they got it, folks, for their controversial, narrow defeat at the hands of New England two years ago must still be eating away at them to a point. With that said, if things continue to trend in their current directions, there is a good chance that we may see these teams meet once again come February, for despite their faults, the Seahawks come across as arguably the most consistent threat in a very watered down NFC. Yes, the Offensive Line is still pedestrian, crippling Russell Wilson and the Offense at times this year, but the Defense remains a cut above the other thirty-one units in the league. Pete Carroll’s charges could become the first Defense in the history of the league to lead the NFL in points allowed in five consecutive seasons, as they are currently permitting just 16.8 points (3rd Overall) on 332.7 total yards (9th Overall), including 233.9 through the air (10th Overall) on 5.9 Net Yards per Pass (8th Overall), and another 98.8 yards on the ground (12th Overall) on 3.5 yards per carry (5th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve produced a simply ravenous Pass-Rush, racking up twenty-seven sacks thus far (3rd Overall), producing at least four on five different occasions this term. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from this team, right? Like the Bears from the 1980’s, or the Ravens from the 2000’s, few teams have become as associated with defense as the Seahawks. However, it’s what happened last Monday Night that’s got everyone talking (no we’re not referring to Richard Sherman obliterating Dan Carpenter). After a dreadful seven-game drought, Seattle’s Offense finally showed some life, against the Bills’ staunch defense no less, surpassing the 30-point threshold for just the second time this year in the 31-25 victory. There were two major takeaways from this game; Russell Wilson finally looked like himself again, while Jimmy Graham reminded everyone just how devastating he can be. Wilson has been the victim of some of the worst Pass-Protection in years, suffering a High Ankle Sprain and an MCL Sprain to the same leg, while trying to push through a Pectoral Strain on his throwing arm, all the while getting sacked sixteen times and hit countless others. As a result, his production plummeted, failing to throw a touchdown pass in five straight games, while rarely rushing the ball, totaling a mere fifty-four yards on twenty-eight carries. Essentially he’s been a sitting duck in the Pocket, without nary a running game to lean on (75.4 yards on 3.2 yards per carry, both 30th Overall). But then came Monday Night, and the resilient twenty-eight year old looked remarkably healthy again, completing a season-best 20-of-26 attempts for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while rushing for his first score of the campaign. While we’re not quite ready to predict a repeat of his torrid second half of 2015, his play certainly bears monitoring moving forward. And then there’s Graham, who a little over a year ago shredded the ligaments in his knee, and has been largely an afterthought since returning to the field. The former Pro-Bowl Tight End masterfully worked the seams of the Bills’ Defense, hauling in all eight of his targets for 103 yards and a pair of one-handed touchdowns with remarkable ease that harkened back to his days at the Louisiana Superdome. Monday’s contest marked his third 100-yard game of the season, bringing his totals to a respectable thirty-eight receptions for 545 yards and a team-best three touchdowns. With these two guys both healthy AND productive, the Seahawks are a true threat again, even if their Offensive Line consists of a bunch of castoffs from your local intramural league.
Meanwhile, in a season where the traditional powers all have glaring faults, here are the Patriots (7-1, 1st in AFC East) once again comfortably sitting atop the AFC, having smoothly weathered their MVP Quarterback’s four-game suspension. After all, this is what we expected to happen once Tom Brady stepped back onto the field, right? In the four games since his return, the Patriots have averaged 34.0 points on a whopping 414.3 total yards per game, committing only two turnovers en route to winning all four outings by at least eleven points apiece. For his efforts, Brady has never looked better, completing a ridiculous 73.1% of his passes for an average of 329.8 yards, twelve touchdowns and NO interceptions. Granted, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett each performed admirably in his absence, but is it outlandish to state that even at the ripe old age of thirty-nine, Brady is playing better than he ever has? Think about for a minute; Brady’s Completion Percentage (73.1%), Touchdown Percentage (9.0%), Yards per Attempt (9.8), Net Yards per Attempt (8.99), Passer Rating (133.9), and QBR (89.00) each represent not only the top mark in the league, but a career-high as well, which in what should be the twilight of his career is simply remarkable. Maybe he really will play into his mid-40’s… And don’t look now, folks, but believe it or not the rich are about to get richer in Foxboro, as No. 12 is about to welcome back yet another weapon, in the form of Dion Lewis. The versatile Tailback was activated off the PUP List after successfully rehabbing a partially torn ACL and Stress Fracture to his Patella Tendon sustained midway through the 2015 campaign, and is expected to make his season debut tonight against the Seahawks. Very similar to fellow teammate James White, the diminutive Lewis is a dangerous pass-catcher out of the Backfield, reeling in thirty-six of fifty targets for 388 yards and a pair of touchdowns in seven games last season. His presence bears keeping an eye on tonight, for when Brady faced Seattle’s vaunted Defense in Super Bowl XLIX, he eviscerated them with a bevvy of short throws inside of five yards, completing 28-of-32 attempts in that range, with a pair of touchdowns to boot. Lewis is a prime candidate to feature in those short zones, along with the likes of the aforementioned White (29 catches, 258 yards, 3 TD) and Receiver Julian Edelman (41 catches, 358 yards, 1 TD). Combined with LeGarrette Blount (609 yards, 9 TD), who has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance himself in a more traditional role, New England’s Backfield appears to be loaded, and able to attack from multiple angles. Another situation that bears watching is the play of Bill Belichick’s defense moving forward, after the esteemed Head Coach curiously traded away promising Inside Linebacker Jamie Collins last week to the lowly Cleveland Browns for a Compensatory (likely Third Round) Pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Collins, one of the most athletic Linebackers in the league was extremely productive, totaling forty-three tackles, a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble, and a sack through seven games this season, but was reportedly jettisoned due to a lack of progress in contract negotiations (he’s in the final year of his initial rookie deal). We’ve seen Belichick do this before, so he’s earned the benefit of the doubt, but in almost every instance in the past, the departed players were no longer in the prime of their respective careers, while this kid, at twenty-seven years of age, should be entering his. He would’ve been the one charged with not only coverage responsibilities on Graham, but also spying Wilson in the pocket, which given his return to health could be crucial in tonight’s game.
Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Seahawks 21