It has been quite the week for NFL conspiracy theories after former members of the St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers hurled postseason cheating allegations against the New England Patriots in an ESPN investigative story. The Patriots were so dialed in to even the most obscure strategic variations that these opponents suspect not even the best coaching could have prepared New England so well.
Whether those allegations are founded or not, no single play from any of those teams' games will be remembered as much as the shocking interception New England collected against Seattle to win the Super Bowl seven months ago. While the Seahawks' decision to pass instead of run has dominated postgame discussion, the Patriots' prescience on the play was remarkable.
What really happened? Two head coaches, three offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators and a veteran defensive assistant have you covered better than Malcolm Butler on Ricardo Lockette. Make sure you check those conspiracy theories at the door. Most of them, anyway.
Theory No. 1: The Seahawks outsmarted themselves by shifting toward a pass-oriented personnel group
The play before the interception, it was first-and-goal from the 5-yard line when Marshawn Lynch powered over the left side, trucking safety Patrick Chung and surging toward the goal line for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower came off left tackle Russell Okung's block in time to trip up Lynch just short of the goal line.
Seattle had run that play with "21" or "regular" personnel (two RBs, one TE, two WRs shown in the pre-snap photo above). Lynch would remain on the field for second down, but the Seahawks replaced fullback Will Tukuafu with a third wide receiver. This shift into 11 personnel ("zebra," in the team's West Coast vernacular) typically would have forced the opponent into its nickel package, but the Patriots would remain in their goal-line defense, daring Seattle to pass the ball.
"If New England is going to be in that personnel grouping, they have to throw it, but if you want a chance to have a good play, you'd better throw a f------ outside-breaking route." An offensive coordinator on Seattle's final play call
"The route concept for the coverage, you feel good about, but Seattle was in regular personnel the play before, when they had the fullback," one head coach said. "They ran left, and nine times out of 10, Marshawn scores on that. ... In the spirit of what was going on, you give the ball to your best player and he gets 4 yards, you thought he almost should have scored. Why did he go to sub personnel?
"Run that play on fourth down. It was second down. Everybody watching the game, when Marshawn goes roaring down in there, I guarantee Belichick was going, 'We are not going to let you run the ball in.'"