CAROLINA PANTHERS vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS TODAY, 6:25 p.m. RELIANT STADIUM, HOUSTON, ON CBS
Facing off...head to head
It's chess game against smashmouth in the Super Bowl
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 1:17 a.m.
Houston - If the Carolina Panthers win the Super Bowl, it will be with power. If the New England Patriots win, it will be with finesse, deception, intimidation and experience.
A guide for the game
At a glance
So while today's NFL championship game may not feature football's biggest stars, it could be a fascinating chess match between two of the game's headiest coaches - accomplished grandmaster Bill Belichick of New England and Carolina's quickly ascending John Fox.
Don't look for glamorous quarterbacks. The most famous are otherwise occupied. Joe Montana is making a promotional tour and John Elway was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.
Today's QBs are the quietly efficient Tom Brady of New England, who may someday be in that class, and Jake Delhomme of Carolina, who almost surely won't. Delhomme spent six seasons on the bench in New Orleans and was even a backup in NFL Europe.
So look to Belichick and Fox, both defensive masterminds. That could make this one of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls since the days when the Roman numerals were in single digits: Between 1969 and 1975, only one loser scored more than seven points.
``It's going to be a street fight,'' said Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, an All-Pro in just his third NFL season.
The contestants approach the game from different perspectives.
The Patriots, Super Bowl champions two seasons ago, have won their last 14 games, including a 24-14 victory over Indianapolis in the AFC title game. No surprise. They were one of the preseason favorites.
Carolina, on the other hand, was 1-15 two seasons ago when Brady and the Pats were winning the title. Their final loss of that season, in fact, was a 38-6 thumping by New England.
Fox took over last season and the Panthers finished 7-9, then won the NFC South at 11-5 this season. They won three playoff games to get here, the last two on the road - a double overtime in St. Louis and in Philadelphia to win the NFC championship.
``The landscape in the NFL being the way it is, you can go from the outhouse to the penthouse pretty quickly,'' Fox said. ``You just have to make sure you slam the outhouse door behind you.''
The question is whether they will get to the penthouse or simply stop at a luxury suite in 2-year-old Reliant Stadium, where the game will be played.
The contrast starts at quarterback.
Brady doesn't scramble like Elway or gamble like Brett Favre. By NFL standards, his arm is just average and he sometimes seems embarrassed to be considered a celebrity. ``He's a star who doesn't want to be a star,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft said.
But he dinks and dunks the opposition to death - quick outs on first down that set up second down and short. It's New England's version of the running game it lacked until Antowain Smith started coming on late in the season.
Then, with the defense creeping up, he goes over the top, as he did in the playoff win over Tennessee, hitting Bethel Johnson in stride for a 41-yard touchdown.
Delhomme had thrown just 86 passes in six seasons when he joined the Panthers.
But he has been extremely efficient since taking over from Rodney Peete in the second half of the season-opener against Jacksonville and rallying the Panthers from a 17-0 deficit to a 24-23 victory. Overall, he led the team to seven victories in the last quarter or overtime.
Still, if Delhomme is the main man for Carolina today, the Panthers will lose - they must move the ball on the ground behind Stephen Davis, foolishly released by Washington and quickly snapped up by Carolina.
Davis, who rushed for 1,444 yards, has been one of the NFL's top power backs for a half-decade - an inside runner with the speed to break a big play. His backup, DeShaun Foster, could start for many NFL teams and provides outside speed.
``Running is the strength of their team. Stopping the run is one of the many strengths of our team,'' New England linebacker Ted Bruschi said. ``It is going to be strength versus strength.''
Concentrate on the word ``many'' in Bruschi's comment.
New England is successful because it may be the only team without a discernible weakness in an era when the salary cap leaves most teams so thin that any injury can lead to a serious collapse. The Patriots had plenty of injuries this season, but they're still 16-2 because they had enough cap room to sign decent backups who stepped right in with no falloff.
If the offense is efficient because Brady is efficient, the defense is even more complex than it was two years ago, when it shut down the Rams and their ``Greatest Show on Turf.''
Designed and perfected by Belichick, it has succeeded in confusing co-MVPs Peyton Manning of the Colts and Steve McNair of Tennessee in two playoff wins. Manning, who had thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception in his previous two playoff games, was picked off four times in the AFC title game.
Only 350-pound-plus run-stuffer Ted Washington is sure to be a down lineman - even All-Pro tackle Richard Seymour sometimes drops into pass coverage. The linebackers are all multiskilled - Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel all have been linemen at different times in their careers.
So if the Patriots had Manning throwing off his back foot - ``happy feet'' is the term applied to a harried QB - what will they do to the inexperienced Delhomme?
Well, Carolina also has a matchup advantage on defense.
The Panthers' front four of Jenkins, Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner and Mike Rucker may be the best in the NFL and backup Al Wallace could be a starter elsewhere.
Because of injuries, New England's offensive line has three starters who barely played before this season - rookie center Dan Koppen, left guard Russ Hochstein and right tackle Tom Ashworth. It hasn't hurt the Pats so far, but they haven't faced a front like Carolina's - Jenkins in particular could dominate.
But the odds are against the Panthers causing too many problems because Brady forces nothing and isn't afraid to throw away the ball.
Also, the Patriots spread their linemen and force defenders to take the long route to Brady, who has a quick release and hasn't been sacked in the playoffs.
So here's what's likely to happen:
The Pats won't score much, but they'll control the ball.
Davis and Foster will get yardage between the 20s, but get shut down near the goal line - both teams rank near the bottom in scoring from in close.
Then New England's defense will prevail. If it can confuse Peyton Manning, it can confuse Jake Delhomme and force enough turnovers to make the difference.
For the second time in three seasons, the Patriots will be Super Bowl champions.
Make the score . . .
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