SUPER BOWL XXXVIII

Panthers seem to relish playing underdog role


Coach John Fox and his Panthers are going into this Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVIII as solid underdogs.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 12:16 a.m.
HOUSTON - The Carolina Panthers not only embrace their role as underdogs, they think it could give them an edge in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
"We definitely feel like it," linebacker Dan Morgan said Monday. "We like that role. It fit the past three weeks in the playoffs and why would we want to change it now?
"We like proving people wrong." Oddsmakers, who made the Patriots a seven-point favorite, have been wrong in recent Super Bowls. Last year, Oakland was a 3-point choice and was routed 48-21 by Tampa Bay. Two years ago, New England came into the big game a 14-point underdog to St. Louis and not only covered, but won 20-17 on Adam Vinatieri's last-second field goal.
Since the 1996 Super Bowl, only two favorites have covered: Denver in 1999 and Baltimore in 2001.
"I didn't even see the line. We really don't care what the line is," Morgan said. "It don't matter to us. The game's got to be played out there on the field. All the outside stuff can really get thrown out the window once the opening kickoff starts."
While Carolina has won six straight, including three in the playoffs - the last two on the road against NFC favorites St. Louis and Philadelphia - there is no debate the Patriots should be favored. They have won 14 in a row, only the second time in NFL history a team has done that.
They are more experienced in these surroundings, of course. And their resilience, work ethic and brilliant game plans have created a sort of inevitability about the Patriots' results since September, when they last were beaten.
"We are the underdogs out of respect," Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "They've won 14 games straight and beat a lot of good football teams and won under adverse conditions."
About the worst thing the Patriots can do now is become overconfident. There was a sense the Rams became big-headed in 2002, and the Patriots pounced on them.
"You have to enjoy your time here, but don't take it for granted," linebacker Ted Johnson said.
"Players understand that you work too hard to get to this point to not take full advantage of this opportunity by not preparing and letting it slip away," tackle Matt Light added. "We know what is at stake."
Even if they can barely remember what it feels like to lose.
"I think we are always going out there trying to prove something," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Two years ago, we were trying to prove something.
"But I think the goal is the same, and it's the same this year. Being a favorite, I don't think Carolina cares much where they are or where we are. I think we have accomplished just as much as they have this year, and they have accomplished just as much as we have. They won their conference, and so have we. They are a team that beat St. Louis on the road, beat Philly on the road. They're the toughest team we've played all year."
Naturally, the Panthers are saying similar things. But they are buoyed by their ability to win close games - seven by three points or less, four victories in overtime - and believe the Super Bowl will fall into that category.
If it does, well, underdogs have won three of the last four Super Bowls decided by seven points or less.
The Patriots have won their share of tight games, too. They have nine wins by eight points or less this season, including the playoffs, an unusually high number for a 14-2 team.
That's why they are only seven-point choices. They don't blow out good teams.
And the Panthers (14-5) are a good, confident, self-assured team.
Even as underdogs. "I didn't know it was going to be the Patriots," safety Mike Minter said, "but I knew we were going to be here."
If the Patriots are surprised to see the Panthers, they aren't letting on, although New England would have been favored against any NFC team this year. Still, Carolina wasn't even on the Super Bowl radar when the season began, and barely was mentioned as a threat to the Rams or Eagles.
Make no mistake, however: The Patriots recognize how dangerous the Panthers are. New England's own Super Bowl upset two years ago ensures that.
"Carolina is the best team we've played this year," coach Bill Belichick said. "They've won six in a row, they won a couple of playoff games on the road. They are just a very solid team."

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