The NFL's No. 1 offense will meet its top defense on Sunday when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots visit Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks.
New England is averaging an NFL-best 33 points and 439.4 yards per game this season and the franchise is a gaudy 38-11 against NFC teams under head coach Bill Belichick.
In a matchup of two of the game's marquee quarterbacks a Sunday ago, it was the Patriots' ground attack which proved to be the difference-maker. Second- year running back Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-high 151 yards and one touchdown, helping New England beat Peyton Manning the Denver Broncos, 31-21, at Gillette Stadium.
Brady threw for 223 yards and a touchdown while Wes Welker finished with 104 receiving yards and caught a touchdown pass for New England, which has won two in a row after a two-game-skid. That losing streak began with a setback in its home opener to Arizona in Week 2 before the Patriots followed up a loss at Baltimore by routing the Bills in Buffalo.
"It's a good win against a very good team," Brady said. "The Broncos have a hell of a team in all three phases and I thought we really stood up to them, so it's a good win for us."
Carroll will coaching against the franchise he once mentored in the late 1990s and the biggest question surrounding him remains uneven rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who has been starting ahead of prized free agent acquisition Matt Flynn.
Flynn, who spent four seasons backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, made his first career start against the Patriots when Rodgers was recuperating from a concussion back in 2010 and was impressive, albeit in a 31-27 defeat.
Wilson, however, earned another start by piloting Seattle to a 16-12 road win over Carolina in Week 5.
The Panthers' Cam Newton fumbled on Carolina's final possession in that one and Seattle recovered, allowing the Seahawks to hold on.
Wilson, who completed 19-of-25 passes for a career-high 221 yards, overcame two interceptions by throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass to Golden Tate late in the third quarter for Seattle. Steven Hauschka converted field goals from 22, 36 and 44 yards in the victory.
"I think Russell really showed his strength as a football player and a competitor," Carroll said. "There's been a lot of scrutiny about him and all that stuff and he just hung tough."
The Patriots lead the all-time series 8-7 and have won the past two, including a a 24-21 win in Seattle back on Dec. 7, 2008, which was the last time these two teams met.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's obviously strength vs. strength in this one with the Pats' passing game against perhaps the best secondary in football. New England creates a matchup nightmare for most teams with its ability to dominate inside the seams with Brady, who has tossed a touchdown in 37 consecutive games, throwing to Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
Also, tight end Aaron Hernandez took part in a portion of New England's Wednesday practice, an indication that the 2011 Pro Bowl honoree may be nearing a return to game action. Hernandez was expected to be sidelined between four-to-six weeks after incurring a low ankle sprain during the Patriots' 20-18 loss to Arizona on Sept. 16, and has sat out the team's last three games as a result. The third-year standout was back practicing on a limited basis last Thursday, however, and was listed as a limited participant again on Wednesday.
Also don't sleep on Ridley and New England's much-improved ground attack. The Patriots' 165.4 rushing yards per game is third in the NFL and they have actually run for more touchdowns (10) than Brady has thrown for this season (8).
"We're getting a lot of nickel defense," Brady said. "When they put little guys out there (in the secondary), we have to take advantage of it. I think we're playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We have to keep doing it. You can't just throw it all day. You can't just run it all day. You have to be able to do both."
The Seahawks possess the best safety tandem in football in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Lengthy corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman also figure to give New England plenty of problems outside the numbers.
"They're fast. The secondary is big, fast. I would describe them as long," Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "They get their hands on a lot of balls. Even though they're younger, I would say they have a lot of experience playing together. They're all good tacklers."
The other side of the ball looks like a nightmare for Seattle, however. The Seahawks are dead last in the NFL with just 163.0 passing yards a game so expect Belichick to throw a number of different looks at Wilson in an effort to force the rookie into a few big mistakes.
In his defense, Wilson has been much better at home this season, compiling a 2-0 mark with three touchdowns and no picks, along with a 105.8 passer rating.
Marshawn Lynch, who leads the NFC with 508 rushing yards, will be counted on the move the chains and open up the kind of one-read, play action that young quarterbacks can succeed at.
The Seahawks defense, which is allowing a league-low 258.6 yards per game and is second in points allowed (14.0), will keep them in most games and this one should be no different, although Ridley's emergence and New England's balance will provide a very stiff test.
"I think it will be a great challenge for us this week against a defense that's really, really playing well," McDaniels said.
Seattle, of course, is especially tough at notoriously noisy CenturyLink Field. This season the Seahawks have stymied Dallas 27-7 at home on Sept. 16 and topped Green Bay, 14-12, just over a week later, albeit with the help of a controversial touchdown call by the replacement referees on the last play of that one.
"I think it might be the loudest stadium that we've been in and we're in a lot of loud ones," Belichick said. "It's a huge home field advantage for them."
All that said, it's hard to imagine Wilson keeping up and this game will put Carroll's decision to go with the rookie under an even brighter microscope again.
"I use it as fire," Wilson told the Seahawks' website when asked about his critics. "I ignore the noise all the time, but at the same time I know that I have to get better."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Seahawks 23