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PHOENIX (Reuters) - The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots could produce one of the greatest Super Bowls of all-time on Sunday but the real winner may be debated for decades given the "deflategate" scandal hanging over the game.
All the elements are in place for the game as the two number one seeds, two brilliant quarterbacks and two coaching masterminds go helmet-to-helmet, watched by a television audience of over 100 million for American sport's biggest prize.
But the final score may not decide the true winner in many fans minds with the spotlight of suspicion firmly fixed on the Patriots as the NFL investigates the Patriots use of illegal under-inflated footballs during a blowout victory over the Indianapolis Colts that clinched a Super Bowl berth.
Even after the game is over and the Vince Lombardi Trophy hoisted the investigation will continue with many fans questioning whether the Patriots should have been allowed onto the University of Phoenix Stadium field.
During the Super Bowl buildup both teams have desperately tried to push the focus back onto the game but the whiff of scandal has refused to drift away.
"You know, right now, our focus is totally on the Seattle Seahawks and this game," said New England coach Bill Belichick when asked if it bothered him that the national perception of the Patriots is "a bunch of cheaters".
"We’ll try to prepare our team and compete as well as we can Sunday afternoon against a great football organisation," Belichick said. "That’s really what our focus is."
Beyond "deflategate" the game is rich with intriguing subplots, personalities and no clear-cut favorite with Las Vegas betting odds shifting from even to the Patriots being a one-point favorite.
The game pits the defending champion Seahawks against the Patriots, who have been the NFL's gold medal standard for the past 14 years, reaching the Super Bowl six times and winning three.
It is a standard the Seahawks are trying to match as they bid to become the first team since the Patriots a decade ago to win back-to-back Lombardi trophies.
The Seahawks' success revolves around a ferocious defense that is the first since the 1985-86 Bears to lead the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed in consecutive seasons.
At the heart of Seattle's top-ranked defense, known as the 'Legion of Boom' is safety Kam Chancellor and Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman.
"We’re a confident bunch,” said Sherman. "We believe in what we do. We believe in our system. We believe in our mentality, our philosophy, and we expect to go out there and execute."
While the outspoken Sherman always has something to say, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch refuses to talk to the media beyond his NFL-mandated obligations.
Lynch prefers to do his talking on the field, switching into what has become known as 'Beast Mode' as he has become one of the NFL's most productive and punishing runners.
The Patriots have a similar makeup relying heavily on the running of LeGarrette Blount and a stout defense anchored by cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and former-Seahawk Brandon Browner.
“There are some similarities," admitted Seattle coach Pete Carroll who was sacked as head coach in New England and replaced by Belichick. "Our background is about defense and our programs have been built on really always having a consistent defense."
The one area of stark contrast for the two teams is at quarterback. The Patriots' Tom Brady is a classic drop back passer who prefers to stand tall in the pocket and pick apart opposing secondaries. Seattle's athletic Russell Wilson can beat you with his passing and running.
Playing in a record equaling sixth Super Bowl, Brady, who has thrown more postseason touchdowns than any player, can join childhood hero Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four championship rings with a win.
“It’s hard to think about those things," said Brady. "To get a chance to play in the Super Bowl, I never thought I’d play in one. So it’s pretty unbelievable to be able to play in six."
Editing by Gene Cherry