Juicy matchups and comparisons abound in Super Bowl 49.
Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis.
Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. The old dynasty versus a potential new one.
Here’s one with a lot less sex appeal but no less relevance.
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How well Seattle center Max Unger handles New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork will be a huge factor in this game.
Because if Unger can’t keep Wilfork’s 350 pounds out of the Seattle backfield, or at least neutralize him at the line, the Seahawks are going to have a long day trying to gain yards.
Unger will get help from guards on the occasional double teams, but he’s unquestionably the anchor of the interior of the Seattle line. And he’s the key in the Seahawks fielding the NFL’s best rushing attack.
That’s not just opinion. There’s math behind the assertion.
Unger appeared to be having the best season of his six-year career, a career in which he’s earned a pair of Pro Bowl appearances and an All-Pro honor (2012). But foot, ankle and knee injuries caused him to miss 10 of the 18 games the Seahawks have played.
While all give credit to backups Stephen Schilling, Lemuel Jeanpierre and Patrick Lewis for stout work in his stead, the difference with Unger on the field is stunning.
When Unger at center, the Hawks averaged 5.8 yards per carry. When Unger was not on the field, the Hawks averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
That’s about 1.1 yards difference per carry when he’s on the field. Sustained over a full season, the 5.8 when Unger was playing would be almost half a yard per rush better than any NFL team’s average in this millennium.
Being sidelined sporadically with injuries challenged Unger to stay mentally engaged while in the rehab process.
“You just prepare for the games like you were going to play them,” he said. “Obviously, you’re trying to come back in the best shape physically and mentally, and know the game plan. You can’t just take a vacation when you’re out.”
Now he’s healthy and facing the biggest challenge of the season.
“He’s a big dude, no question about that,” Unger said of Wilfork. “He’s a very good defensive lineman, obviously. He’s shown that he’s a premier player in this league at his position. It’s a tall challenge and we’ve got to figure it out.”
Actually, it’s more of a wide challenge. But he’s used to those.
Until talented nose tackle Brandon Mebane went out with injury near midseason, Unger used to practice against him every day. It was good preparation, even though Mebane is a good 25 pounds lighter than Wilfork.
Wilfork, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, might be feeling a bit like Superman these days, having come to the rescue of a woman who had flipped her car the evening of the Patriots’ 45-7 win over the Colts in the AFC title game.
Wilfork managed to get her out of the car and get her to safety until the police arrived. Wilfork downplayed the act. “It wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “It just seeing somebody that needed help and acting.”
We may wonder what the woman thought, having been shaken up by the accident only to see the massive Wilfork reaching in the window to pull her out.
The Seahawks won’t enter the Super Bowl with a lot of secrets. They’re going to run the ball. And they’ll rely on Unger’s blocking as well as his capacity to read the defense and make the assignment calls.
“We take a lot of pride in (running), obviously, and being explosive in the passing game,” he said. “It’s our identity; it’s something we focus on.”
Unger won’t have to be far-sighted to focus on his main objective Sunday.
He’ll be within arm’s length. And he’ll be very, very large.