As the New England Patriots make yet another grab for gaudy jewelry, the Seattle Seahawks are among those teams watching.
The Seattle faithful might be tempted to look back at Super Bowl 49 and wonder whether things would be different now if the Seahawks had been able to punch in the final touchdown and beat the Patriots that day in Glendale, Arizona.
How would the team’s trajectory have changed? Would they have been able to sustain a reign atop the NFL?
But the question “what if?” seems less productive at this point than “why?”
In brief, the Patriots continue to do what they’ve done in these 14 straight seasons with double-digit wins: Coach Bill Belichick will not allow complacency, divisiveness, inconsistency or predictability, and he benefits from handing the ball to incomparable quarterback Tom Brady.
The refusal of those two to be satisfied keeps the rest of the team completely engaged, and those who aren’t engaged learn quickly that they might just get traded.
Since the interception that sealed Super Bowl 49 for the Patriots, the Seahawks have won the only head-to-head meeting of the two teams.
That Nov. 13 win at Foxborough established unfulfilled expectations that there would be a Super Bowl rematch this time around.
Instead, the Patriots face Atlanta in Houston in Super Bowl 51 while the Seahawks lost once again in the divisional round of the playoffs.
That the Seahawks defeated both of this year’s Super Bowl teams during the regular season now seems more like an indictment than a bragging point; proving they can beat the best at times, but not quite often enough.
It’s a reminder of an NFL reality that 31 teams are loathe to admit: The Patriots are separate and apart.
And the fact that they’re once again in the Super Bowl says more about them than it does the Seahawks.
This very easily could have been New England’s third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, as their loss in last season’s AFC title game was by a mere 20-18 (after a missed two-point conversion in the final seconds) at the home of eventual champion Denver.
Since that dramatic 28-24 Super Bowl win over the Hawks, the Patriots have won more games than any team in the league, going 26-6, while the Hawks have gone 20-11-1. Over those two seasons, only the Patriots, Kansas City (23 wins), Pittsburgh and Carolina (21) have won more than Seattle.
The Patriots’ consistency is an impressive as the excellence. They rarely fall into slumps.
The Seahawks’ 2-4 start in ’15, and the 2-3 stretch late in ’16, meanwhile, killed solid shots at homefield advantage in the playoffs.
Three losses to the Rams in those two seasons seemed evidence that the Seahawks had lost some of the weekly combativeness that was the hallmark of the 2013-14 Super Bowl teams.
A lot of teams get hot and contend for a couple of seasons and then fade. The Seahawks’ five straight runs to the divisional round is far better than most.
But New England is in a different realm. Belichick and Brady are going for their fifth Super Bowl in seven appearances together. That’s unrivaled in a league constructed to prevent such dominance.
The difference relative to the Seahawks the past two seasons?
The Patriots’ defense has matched the statistical production of the historically efficient Seahawks, as New England has allowed 565 points the past two seasons, four fewer than Seattle.
But in that time, New England has scored 906 points to Seattle’s 777.
So they not only win more, they also win by larger margins.
Although Brady missed four games this season through a suspension for the “Deflategate” scandal, his passing numbers for the past 28 games edge the stats produced by Seattle’s Russell Wilson in 32 games. (Brady’s 64 TDs, nine interceptions, 8,223 yards to Wilson’s 55 TDs, 19 INTS, 8,243 yards).
This season, Brady threw only two interceptions in 432 attempts. And the Patriots finished at plus-12 in the turnover differential, compared with Seattle’s plus-1.
Since that Super Bowl win, the Patriots have added five draft picks to the starting lineup for this Super Bowl. The 2016 Seahawks had only two full-time starters from the past two drafts (guards Germain Ifedi and Mark Glowinski).
The Hawks’ offensive line was rated by Pro Football Focus as the worst in the league. New England’s, with a pair of six-year veteran tackles, was viewed as 10th.
Another way Belichick keeps the Patriots hungry and on their toes is his willingness to trade veterans, even very talented ones.
In the past year, they traded a pair of Pro Bowl defenders, Chandler Jones to the Cardinals and Jamie Collins to the Browns. They plugged in other players and ended up allowing the fewest points in the NFL.
Of course those final moments of Super Bowl 49 signaled changes for the Seahawks.
There have been the loss of talent (Marshawn Lynch retired) and key injuries (Wilson, Earl Thomas, Thomas Rawls, Jimmy Graham, etc.).
Meanwhile, there has not been the necessary infusion of young talent capable of staying healthy enough to contribute.
The Seahawks should remain the king of their division and one of the conference contenders. They certainly were talented enough to top the Patriots on a night in November.
But it takes more to be able to do it week in and out for decades.
That’s what makes the Patriots so remarkable, and so detestable for every other team trying to knock them off the top.