Blue collar right fit for both teams

Analysis: The Panthers run more and the Patriots prefer to pass, but both teams are strong on defense and quick to pounce on mistakes.

Super Bowl -- Panthers, Patriots

January 20, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Scratch the co-Most Valuable Players. Toss out the high-flying offenses. Lose the word "destiny" from your postseason vocabulary.

Gone: Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, the co-MVPs; the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts, the Nos. 2 and 3 offenses in the NFL this season; the Green Bay Packers with Brett Favre and the Philadelphia Eagles with their fourth-and-26 miracle.

Still standing: the New England Patriots, with their 14-game winning streak, and the Carolina Panthers, thanks to the restorative powers of coach John Fox.

After 17 weeks of jockeying for position and three weeks of elimination, the league's two best teams are where they should be - headed to Houston in another week for the Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium.

As usual, it came down to white-knuckle defense and two teams that wouldn't accept losing as an option. The Patriots and Panthers are two teams that reflect the steely determination of their coaches, two teams cut from the same blue-collar cloth.

The Patriots made Manning and the Colts' offense look awful in Sunday's 24-14 AFC championship game win. Only New England's inefficiency inside the 20-yard line kept it close.

In a 14-3 NFC championship game victory, the Panthers exposed the Eagles for what they are - a punch-drunk defensive team that relied way too much on quarterback Donovan McNabb. When the Panthers took McNabb out of the equation, the Eagles went quietly. And, no, that wasn't an upset. Carolina is unquestionably superior.

That serves up a No. 1 seed (the Patriots) against a No. 3 seed (the Panthers) in Houston. Not since the 1993 season, when the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills, 30-13, has the Super Bowl featured two No. 1 seeds.

That is the result of parity, of course. It takes more than home-field advantage to get there these days, as the Eagles found out two years running.

The bye week has tilted the Super Bowl tournament toward the top two teams in each conference, but the Panthers, who had to play three games to reach Houston, bucked the trend. Since the league went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990, Carolina is just the fifth team (of 28) to advance to the Super Bowl after playing in the wild-card round.

The two-week break between the championship games and Super Bowl should allow the Panthers to catch their breath.

So what can we expect?

A very competitive game, a field-position game, possibly even a field-goal game if these defenses hold.

It's a game that ultimately could come down to one team's defensive strategist against the other team's quarterback. The Patriots' defensive genius Bill Belichick against Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme? Well, no.

The key matchup could be Fox and his defensive coordinator, Mike Trgovac, against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. If the Panthers, buoyed by the best defensive line in football, turn loose their blitzers again in Houston, Brady might have trouble, too.

Remember, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the best defensive line in the league a year ago and tore up the Oakland Raiders' No. 1 offense. The final was 48-21.

Not that the Patriots don't have a good defensive line. They were fourth in rush defense this season and first in scoring defense. Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, certainly will dream up some looks that Delhomme never saw even growing up in Louisiana.

As always, turnovers will play a major role. The Patriots (5-2) and Panthers (4-0) both won the turnover battle on Sunday. The winner of that battle will probably take home the Lombardi Trophy in two weeks, too.

During the regular season, the Patriots' defense faced nearly 100 more passes than the Panthers did and came up with 13 more interceptions.

These are mirror teams in philosophy, if not strategy. Belichick is a defensive coach who runs a passing offense, albeit a short passing game. His style has been good enough to get the Patriots to two Super Bowls in three years.

Fox is a defensive coach whose offensive strength is in the running game.

In Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, he has a devastating one-two punch. His style has been good enough to elevate the Panthers from 1-15 doldrums two years ago to pro football's pinnacle.

The running of Davis and Foster meant Delhomme had to throw only 14 passes in Philadelphia.

It's not likely New England's running back, Antowain Smith, is going to have the same effect, although he rushed for 100 yards against Indianapolis.

So, like Philadelphia with McNabb, the Patriots must rely on Brady's passing to get their points.

But just like Sunday, defense will dictate in the Super Bowl.

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