In his long-awaited first opportunity as an NFL head coach, Marvin Lewis accomplished the near-impossible, turning the downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals into a formidable team that nobody looked forward to playing. The Bengals remained in playoff contention in the AFC North until the season's final week, and were the feel-good story of the year in the NFL, even as they fell one success short of their first winning season since 1990.
Lewis, the former Baltimore and Washington defensive coordinator, has agreed to break down Super Bowl XXXVIII and share his pregame analysis with SI.com.
Carolina beats New England if ...
The Panthers can make some big plays down the field in the passing game, and force the Patriots to play more two-deep coverage. If New England has to think more about playing coverage, it really should open up the running lanes for Carolina and Stephen Davis. The Panthers have to move the ball productively by passing in order to have any room to run.
Carolina has won its three playoff games because of the big plays it made throwing the football. The run keeps them making first downs, which just buys time to expose the defense to more big plays in the passing game. I think Panthers receiver Steve Smith is going to be a huge factor in the game. He's been their big-play guy this month, and he has to continue to stretch the field for Carolina.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has really taken advantage of his opportunities when he's had them in the playoffs. He's going to have to hit some passes and some plays and avoid the turnover, just like he did against Dallas, St. Louis and Philadelphia. I think the game will be played real close to the vest, much like the NFC title game. But people are going to take their shots down the field, and if they hit them, they're going to make a big difference in the game. You have to take your shots.
On defense, the Panthers are going to have recognize before the snap when they can come after Tom Brady and put some pressure on him. If they can do that, if they can recognize when to come, that will allow them to get some push and get in his face and maybe have some balls tipped back at Brady. That would be big, because nobody's been able to do that with the Patriots' short routes, their crossing routes and their quick three-step drops. They're going to have to be up and on him if they're going to prevent Brady from picking them apart.
The quickness of the Carolina secondary against the quickness of the Patriots' receivers is going to be a good matchup. But it's going to be the stick-to-it-iveness that's going to win out in this game. The Panthers' defensive backs have to hang in there and try to make some plays, because the Patriots are going to catch their share of balls.
New England beats Carolina if ...
The Patriots' offense can slow down the Panthers' defensive front. I think the Patriots aren't going to let the Carolina front dictate the game. I think they're going to continue to do the same things they've done all year long. They will try to slow them down with the trap play and things like that in the interior. Their quick draws and the quick traps are effective and I think they're going to use those plays to slow down the Carolina front and keep them off Tom Brady.
New England is going to mix the run in there. They're going to spread them out and mix the run in and try to hit the Panthers with their quick passing game, vertically. If they can make some plays that way, the Panthers won't just be able to just stay at line of the scrimmage against the New England receivers, and they'll force them into more single, high safety work.
People want to know if the Patriots' defense can stop the Panthers' running game? Well, I didn't think they could stop the Steelers' running game two years ago in the AFC title game and they did, so I don't want to say they can't stop the Panthers' running game. But that's going to be the key, slowing Stephen Davis down. I don't know that you have to stop him, but you have to slow him down in order to keep Carolina from just continuing to move the sticks that way.
New England's defenders just all play their roles. That's why they've been such a good team. Instead of having one guy who does it, they do it with a combination of three or four different guys. At linebacker, Mike Vrabel has played outstanding in every game this postseason. And the Patriots secondary just plays sound. Everybody is always where they belong. That's how they've played all season, and they can't let it fall apart in the biggest game of the year. They've got to stay sound and have everyone do their job.
I like how New England has sounded this week. All they talk about is doing their job. You listened to the Patriots this week and that's all they referred to. The other team (the Panthers) talked about how good they are. And I think the Patriots' Super Bowl experience is going to help them a lot. I think it helped them all week. I was there in Houston on Tuesday and what a difference in the two teams. I thought there was quite a difference in demeanor. New England seemed focused on one thing: Winning.