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The pick is in

Patriots, 17-9.

As I sit here this morning, 10 hours before kickoff and praying those hours will go fast, the only thing I feel quite sure about is that Tom Brady will be able, somehow, to play pitch-and-catch against Carolina's fine and oft-stifling defense.

At the annual SI night-before-the-game party last night, I'd say the sentiment was about 3-1 in favor of New England among people who have some sort of quality opinion about the game. But while I agreed, I also said to a couple of people: "The most mistaken perception about this game is that Bill Belichick has some huge advantage over John Fox." Untrue. I respect Belichick like no other coach, particularly for his gameday maneuverings and disguises, but Fox, too, is brilliant in coming up with wrinkles to frustrate the opposition.

Remember the championship game, when he put Stephen Davis seven yards behind the line, with two tights ends flanking him three yards behind the line? The overmatched Eagles got snowplowed for nine and six yards in that formation on the first two snaps of the game. That, folks, is what John Fox does. He sees your weakness, like Belichick, and pokes at it until you so compensate for it that you're weak in other areas.

Problem is, I don't see poke-and-proddable weaknesses in this New England defense, really. I see a run defense -- though I can see it bending and I can see the Panthers doing some damage on the ground -- that never allowed more than 109 yards in a game in the 12 games Ted Washington wasn't hurt. And the monstrous nose man is healthy today. I see a pass defense that has more picks than any defense in football this year -- 34 in 18 games. I see veteran savvy all over the Patriots.

Really, I think there are only two ways New England loses.

1. If the Carolina offense can run the ball and keep the clock moving well enough, basically, to play keep-away from Brady. New England had 10 possessions against the Titans in the divisional game, 12 two weeks ago against Indy. If the Pats get 11 today, barring a spate of turnovers, I just can't see Carolina stopping Brady, if he's the regular Brady.

2. If Brady hands them the game. Say, with three picks. Enjoy it. God knows we've hit you over the head long enough with this media blitz.

The Houston Chronicle reported this morning that the odds of Carolina cornerback Ricky Manning winning game MVP honors are 22:1.

"When I think of the Hall of Fame, I always think of other people. Dick Butkus. Walter Payton. I truly feel out of place.'' -- Barry Sanders, an hour after learning of his induction.

OK, I admit it. I am in love with that Toyota Center, and I may even start to tolerate the NBA. Had a grotesquely great time there Saturday afternoon at Nets 88, Rockets 77. You want to see amenities? Sit on the club level of that place or visit a suite. Incredible. The suites have desktop computers! You can surf during layup drills! What a country!

1. I think one of the pleasures of this exhaustingly fun week has been having daughter Mary Beth and her friend Ben Norman, the Montclair High tight end, here to experience the fun. My favorite part was when Ben encountered the Coors Light twins, who, by the way, are quite a couple. And Ben got to pose with them, an arm flung over the shoulders of both, for a photo. When I asked him how that experience was, he said: "My life's complete.''

2. I think no matter how awkward his exit from the game was, and no matter how weird a guy he was at times in his career, there is no player I've respected more as a person in 20 years at this racket than Barry Sanders.

3. I think this was my final talk-show count for the week: 43 in six days, including Lynchburg, Va. I need to take a course in "no.''

4. I think Tom Brady wins his second MVP in three years tonight. My upset special pick: Mike Vrabel.

5. I think I almost got a little misty when John Elway started talking about how much his father would have loved him going into the Hall.

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