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The Going Gets Tough In a matchup of blue-collar defenses and contrasting offenses, the Patriots get the nod

Jan. 26, 2004
Jan. 26, 2004

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Jan. 26, 2004

The Going Gets Tough In a matchup of blue-collar defenses and contrasting offenses, the Patriots get the nod

DEFENSE BEATS offense in the Super Bowl, at least in this era.
Last year the Buccaneers dismantled the Raiders' marvel of an
attack. Two years ago it was the Patriots roughing up all those
pretty St. Louis receivers and bringing the Rams' Greatest Show
to the turf, and the season before that the Ravens' defense
crushed the life out of any semblance of an offense the Giants
tried to mount.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2004 issue Original Layout

Five years ago John Elway won a Super Bowl for the Broncos, but
since then no quarterback drafted in the first round has made it
to the winner's podium with his original team. And it won't
happen this year, either, because a pair of first-rounders,
Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb, got defensed and intercepted
and sacked into oblivion in Sunday's conference championships.
Instead, we get a sixth-rounder, Tom Brady, and a guy who wasn't
even drafted, Jake Delhomme.

Defense rules again. You'll be able to say that no matter who
wins this time, Carolina or New England, because both are
defense-oriented teams. But just what each of them will be
defending against makes for a bit of intrigue, because Super Bowl
XXXVIII offers the most extreme contrast--the Patriots'
run-and-shoot against a Panthers offense that rolled out the
wishbone for a handful of plays.

Carolina's wishbone look was named Philly Right and Philly Left
in honor of the Eagles, for whom it was unveiled last week. Some
teams wear throwback jerseys; the Panthers have a throwback
offense. Or at least they used one to set the tone in the NFC
title match, "to let the Eagles know we were serious about
pounding the ball," says tight end Kris Mangum, who lined up as a
252-pound left halfback in the 'bone, with tight end Jermaine
Wiggins as the 260-pound right halfback and Stephen Davis as the
230-pound middle man.

Oh, it set the tone all right. The first two carries of each half
came out of this formation, and Davis gained nine, six, seven and
seven yards. Then the 'bone went on the shelf, where it sits as a
reminder to Bill Belichick and the Patriots' defense that, while
they might have been able to out-tough a flashy team such as the
Colts in the AFC title game, they will be going up against a
lunch-pail outfit next time.

New England likes to spread wideouts all over the field and throw
short, annoying passes to them in never-ending succession, just
as run-and-shoot teams like the old Oilers and the USFL's Houston
Gamblers used to do. Sure, Pats offensive coordinator Charlie
Weis called his share of runs against the Colts. (As soft as
Indianapolis had shown itself against the ground attack, Weis was
practically compelled to give Antowain Smith enough carries, 22,
to get him his 100 yards.) But Weis is addicted to the dink pass,
and at times the Patriots almost suffered for it. They let the
Colts back into a November game this way after getting them down
31-10 in the third quarter. And Brady threw an end-zone
interception on Sunday while trying to put the kill shot on Indy
when a field goal would have done just as well. It's an arrogant
approach, and the Panthers' defense will be ready for it.

The Carolina operation is keyed to its front four, the youngest
three of whom--ends Julius Peppers (24) and Mike Rucker (28) and
tackle Kris Jenkins (24)--seldom leave the field. They're counted
on to supply the rush all by themselves. The linebackers don't
blitz; they drop into the short zones. The occasional blitz comes
from strong safety Mike Minter.

The Panthers' secondary was suspect--until a 23-year-old rookie
corner, Ricky Manning, emerged in the playoffs. He started the
season as the nickelback and gradually worked his way into
regular duty on the left side. He saved the divisional-round win
against St. Louis with a sensational one-handed interception that
he stole from Torry Holt and then came up with three picks
against McNabb on Sunday.

The New England defense, on the other hand, is impossible to
type. "We're role players," says Mike Vrabel, the strongside
linebacker who once was a Steeler. "Some of us are rejects, but
they found a place for us here. We're well-coached, we're
physical, we don't miss many tackles." Vrabel can line up as a
pass-rushing end, or as he did against the Colts, as a middle man
in the nickel or dime defenses. He wreaked havoc on the Indy
receivers' crossing patterns as the Patriots worked their plan to
press the pass catchers on the line and reroute them, just as
they did to the Rams two Super Bowls ago.

"That's the thing with Coach Belichick," says linebacker Roman
Phifer. "We don't know what to expect from him week to week.
He'll give us new stuff [in the game plan] all the time. He knows
we're a veteran defense, and that we'll be able to handle it.
Nothing surprises us anymore."

The king of that New England defense, a corner who is, at 29,
playing the greatest football of his career, is Ty Law. He picked
off Peyton Manning three times on Sunday. "It was just like the
[Super Bowl against] St. Louis," Law says. "Nobody thought we
could run with those guys, but we just did what we do best: play
physical. [The previous week] we played it soft against the
Tennessee receivers, but the Indy game plan, from Day One, was to
get up there and beat 'em up."

The Panthers have their role players, too, but they're mostly on
offense, part of an attack that was so basic that Delhomme threw
only three passes in the second half against the Eagles and only
one pass all day that could be considered downfield. Brad Hoover
once was the featured runner, but now he's the blocking fullback.
Mangum came into the league as a pass catcher of sorts, but now
he's a blocker, mainly in motion. ("We use him to manufacture a
running game," coach John Fox says.) Wideout Muhsin Muhammad made
102 catches for Carolina three years ago, but now he's known
throughout the league as one of the more vicious blockers on the
edge. "And not just against guys wearing 20s and 30s," he says.
"Some 50s and 60s, too. Sometimes even a 90."

"They've got a quarterback who's gained a lot of confidence over
the last few weeks," Vrabel said of Delhomme on Sunday night.
"They've got two running backs who can do damage, and they've got
the receivers who can make plays. We don't know a lot about them,
but trust me, we will soon."

Call this the blue-collar Super Bowl. You'll only find one
offensive Pro Bowl choice on the two rosters combined (the
Panthers' Davis).

My prediction? The Patriots will run a few times with Smith, just
to test the water, then settle into their short-passing game.
Defensively they'll give Delhomme a bit of early pressure, then
fall back into a multiple-defender coverage scheme, trying to
create confusion. The Panthers will pound the ball and rely on
their defense to keep things close, which they will for a while.
They'll use their linebackers to fill Brady's short-passing
lanes.

Carolina is a sentimental choice, but I can't pick against a
Belichick defense with two weeks to prepare.

Patriots 20, Panthers 17.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS SECONDARY ROLE Minter (30) and Carolina's other defensive backsare no longer a suspect unit.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER NO BACKING DOWN Eugene Wilson (26) and the Pats' physical defensecan wreck a passing game.