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chad finn | unconventional preview

Seattle may be in the NFC, but this sure feels like a rivalry game for the Patriots

Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll before their Super Bowl meeting on Feb. 1, 2015.
Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll before their Super Bowl meeting on Feb. 1, 2015.REUTERS

Welcome to Season 9, Episode 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup.

Is it possible that the Patriots have a genuine rivalry with a team from the other side of the country that they’ve collided with just 18 times in their history?

Put it this way: I’m not sure the Patriots and Seahawks have a blood feud the way Seattle might with a division foe like the 49ers, or the Patriots have had with, say, the Ravens in recent years.

But when these teams have met during the Bill Belichick/Pete Carroll years, as they will Sunday night for the first time since 2016, the outcome has always been contentious and sometimes unforgettable.

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The Seahawks, led by dynamic quarterback Russell Wilson, have beaten the Patriots two of the last three times they’ve played. In 2012, host Seattle overcame a 23-10 Patriots lead in the fourth quarter to prevail, 24-23.

Wilson, then a rookie and on his way to being an all-time steal as a third-round pick, threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns, eluding the exasperated Patriots defense all day.

It’s also when we were introduced to Richard “U Mad Bro?” Sherman, who when it was over trash-talked Tom Brady off the field and presumably all the way to the boarding gate at Sea-Tac Airport.

The Seahawks also beat the Patriots in their most recent meeting, a 31-24 victory on “Sunday Night Football” in November 2016. Wilson threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in that one as Seattle scored the last 9 points.

Of course, the Seahawks would trade those two victories, the other seven they have in their history against the Patriots (the teams are 9-9 against each other), and the rights to clone Steve Largent if they could have back a certain ill-advised slant pass Wilson threw in the decisive moments of Super Bowl XLIX. “Malcolm, go!” they said, and so Malcolm Butler did, right into a permanent place in NFL lore. I still say his game-saving, history-altering interception is the greatest play in NFL history.

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So, yes, while these teams don’t collide often, there sure is some juicy history. And Sunday’s matchup should be another gem, with the Seahawks coming off an impressive 38-25 win over the Falcons, while the Patriots began the Cam Newton era with an encouraging 21-11 win over the Dolphins.

The only lament in anticipating this one? It won’t be played in front of any fans. And there was a time when we didn’t know if it would even be played in Seattle — in normal times one of the best fan environments in the league — given the unhealthy air quality resulting from the West Coast wildfires.

Such is the state of affairs during the COVID-19 pandemic; the injury report might as well include “United States: Questionable” at this point. The fake crowd noise won’t do the real thing justice. But it’s what we have.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching

Russell Wilson: Per pro-football-reference.com’s Similarity Scores, Wilson’s all-time most similar player production-wise is … Cam Newton. Vice versa for Newton.

I bring this up because while Newton has been an excellent, versatile quarterback who has won a Most Valuable Player Award, Wilson also has been an excellent, versatile quarterback — and he has never received a single MVP vote.

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So, yes, while Belichick can be prone to hyperbole when it comes to praising a given week’s opposing quarterback, what he said about Wilson this past week was absolutely true: "Honestly, I think he’s in a way maybe underrated by the media, by the fans. I don’t really see anybody better than this player.”

Patrick Mahomes might have a beef there, but Wilson has been doing it much longer at a similarly extraordinary level.

One other Wilson note: He has played the Patriots three times in his career, including Super Bowl XLIX, throwing a total of 85 passes. He has been picked off once. Chances are a picture of that one is hanging in the sports room of your home.

Adrian Phillips: I knew Phillips was a decent safety during his six seasons with the Chargers. But I have to admit, when he signed with the Patriots in March, a day after they traded steady Duron Harmon, all I specifically recalled about him was that he was the player whose wife came down on the sidelines to check on him in the medical evaluation tent after he got hurt during a 2017 game against the Chiefs. (Good for her, good for them. Beyond being a caring wife, Camille Phillips is a doctor.)

This year’s opener was the first time we got to see him in action as a Patriot, and it was impossible not to be impressed. Phillips led the Patriots in tackles (9), corralled one of three interceptions of Ryan Fitzpatrick, and looked like a more-than-capable stand-in for Patrick Chung, who opted out of the season.

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I’ve written a few times in the build-up to this season that unexpected stalwarts will emerge given the opportunities the Patriots' defense presents this year. After one game, anyway, Phillips has vaulted to the top of that list.

D.K. Metcalf: A favorite lament of Patriots fans is recounting the draft misses at wide receiver; Bethel Johnson over Anquan Boldin in 2003, Chad Jackson over Greg Jennings in 2006, that sort of thing. While I’m a believer in N’Keal Harry (and it was cool hearing Newton speak up on his behalf), it is easy to envy the possibilities the Seahawks have in Metcalf, who went 32 picks after Harry in the 2019 draft.

Metcalf is massive for a receiver (6 feet 4 inches, 235 pounds), but he can fly, and he started the season well with four catches for 95 yards and a touchdown last week. Imagine him and Newton on the same team. Actually, you probably already have.

Grievance of the Week

I’m going to keep this one simple, since it’s my recurring grievance every time the Patriots play the Seahawks. Anyone who thinks Carroll didn’t get a fair shake during his three years with the Patriots (1997-99) either wasn’t around or wasn’t paying attention.

He took a roster stacked with young talent — Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Curtis Martin, Lawyer Milloy, Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, Ben Coates, and more — and through a chronic lack of discipline allowed what should have been a Super Bowl-contending team to corrode just a little bit more each season.

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Maybe he’s a good coach now, but his Kumbaya Pete routine was exhausting and detrimental then.

Key matchup

Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner vs. the Patriots running game

The most encouraging play from the win over the Dolphins wasn’t one of Newton’s linebacker-freezing option runs or the dart he threw to Julian Edelman on his first passing attempt that made it abundantly clear there is still rocket fuel in his right arm.

The most encouraging play was when the Patriots cashed in for their final touchdown, with Sony Michel running behind David Andrews and fullback Jakob Johnson for 1 yard. It was reminiscent of the 2018 postseason when Michel followed the lead of fullback James Develin to score six TDs in the playoffs, including the only one in the Super Bowl win over the Rams.

Michel struggled for a lot of reasons last year, with the absences of Andrews (who missed the season after blood clots were discovered in his lungs) and Develin (neck injury) at the top of the list.

It will be fascinating to see whether Michel, who had 37 yards on 10 carries against Miami but ran with purpose, can continue to look the part of reliable running back against Seattle, which features not only probable Hall of Famer Wagner, a five-time All-Pro who had a league-high 159 tackles last year, but Jets expatriate Jamal Adams, a safety who wallops like a linebacker.

Wagner and Adams combined for 19 tackles against the Falcons, who managed 72 rushing yards on 21 carries.

If the Patriots backs — and not just Michel, but Rex Burkhead, J.J. Taylor, James White, and, with more selective usage than last week, Newton — can run on these guys, it might be time to believe in their ball-control game for the first time in a while.

Prediction

(or, are we sure Dave Krieg isn’t Russell Wilson’s backup?)

The Patriots' victory over the Dolphins shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant. Brian Flores is a smart coach with institutional knowledge of the Patriots. Miami had an improved roster over the one that wrecked the Patriots' best-laid plans — and the inside track at a bye — in Week 17 last year. That’s a good win, even if the Dolphins aren’t yet a good team.

But this week brings a whole different kind of test. The Seahawks dropped 38 points on the Falcons, and there’s some giddiness among Seattle fans (found at the Twitter hashtag #LetRussCook) that the Seahawks are getting away from their vanilla ways and finally will allow Wilson more creative freedom.

The Patriots' offense was impressive in its basic efficiency in Week 1. Newton completed 15 of 19 passes, while running 15 times for 75 yards and a pair of scores. But against the Seahawks, he’s going to have to use his arm more often, even if the Patriots do establish the run, because Seattle is going to score.

The Seahawks showed signs of vulnerability against the pass in the opener, giving up 450 yards via the air to Matt Ryan, but I’m not sure Newton and the Patriots' group of pass-catchers are quite ready to take advantage — or match what Wilson can do with his offense. Seahawks 30, Patriots 27.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.