Super Bowl Marquee Matchup
Breaking down the big one -- from a Panthers' point of view
By Wayne Morris, Real Football
With the Panthers and Patriots owning two of the best defenses in the NFL, this game shapes up as a tight, physical and low-scoring affair. The Patriots have all the experience and are riding a remarkable 14-game winning streak. The Panthers have completed a remarkable turnaround going from 1-15 to a Super Bowl berth in less than three years.
Panthers offense vs. Patriots defense
After watching the Patriots' defense totally shut down red-hot Peyton Manning and the Colts, Carolina fans must be wondering about their offense heading into the big game. This offense that was deemed simplistic and vanilla during the regular season has flourished in the playoffs, averaging 24 points against three very good defenses. The Panthers have been pounding their opponents on the ground, averaging 159.3 yards per game and has had big strikes through the air.
One of the biggest factors for Carolina is that Jake Delhomme has answered the bell. Coming into these playoffs it was talked about over and over that Delhomme would not and could not make enough plays with his arm to help his team win. Not only has Delhomme made enough plays, he has flourished. His performance against the Cowboys and Rams produced the big numbers, but it is the performance in Philadelphia that should excite fans heading into the Super Bowl. Delhomme was 9 of 14 for 101 yards and one touchdown, but more importantly he did not wilt when faced with the Eagles' notorious blitzes. Instead of making mistakes, he threw the football away when necessary.
New England feeds off of bringing pressure from everywhere and relies on confusing opposing quarterbacks and forcing them into mistakes. Belichick and Co. have had two weeks to prepare and will look for a way to force Delhomme into mistakes. The Panthers have made it to Houston by making a complete turnaround from the regular season. They owned a minus-five turnover margin during the season, but in the playoffs they are a plus-seven with only two turnovers in three games. What will help Delhomme is the fact that most of their big plays are thrown outside. The Patriots are very dangerous when a quarterback makes a mistake over the middle. WR Steve Smith (108 ypg in playoffs) had a breakout season and playoffs and will be matched up against Ty Law. That may be the highlight matchup but keep an eye on 6-foot-2 Mushin Muhammad against 5-8 CB Tyrone Poole.
In the postseason, the Panthers have dominated time of possession, 32:29 to 27:31, by leaning on the running game. Stephen Davis will be the key to the game. If the Pats shut him down, it will be a long afternoon for Delhomme. Davis' power running along with the outside speed of the emerging Deshaun Foster will keep the New England run defense honest. The Panthers' line, along with lead blocker FB Brad Hoover, has a size advantage up front and with the uncertainty surrounding the health of LB Ted Bruschi (calf), look for the Panthers to try to exploit the Patriots' interior run defense.
Patriots offense vs. Panthers defense
The New England offense does not have the big names and sometimes is not the most aesthetically pleasing offensive unit in the league, but the Pats find a way to get the job done. What they do have is Tom Brady. Brady did not receive the attention of NFL co-MVP's Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, but all he has done is lead his team to 14 straight wins, including beating McNair and Manning in the last two games. Brady's numbers (55.1 percent completion, 74.6 QB rating) during the playoffs are not mind-blowing, but considering the weather he played in and the fact that he does not turn the football over in big games, he has truly been impressive. The Patriots will screen you to death and use the short passing game as an extension of the running game to control the clock. Brady uses all his receivers, including his tight ends and backs. This is what makes the Patriots tough to defend in the passing game. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis does a great job coming up with the game plans, making it very hard to prepare for New England.
The Panthers' defense has been the strength of the team all season long. And last week's effort was the latest example of what John Fox's defense is all about. The Panthers defense physically beat up the Eagles, knocking McNabb out of the game and holding the Philly offense to three points and forcing four turnovers. The Panthers' defense is known for its physical front seven, led by the best starting four defensive linemen in the NFL. Carolina is tough against the run and can get after the QB -- and getting pressure on Brady is a must. The Panthers can get pressure with their front four but they will also blitz. DT's Brentson Buckner and Pro Bowler Kris Jenkins must get pressure in the face of Brady. With the injury to OG Damien Woody, Carolina will look to take advantage of rookie Dan Koppen, who does not have the size or ability to control the two plus-300-pound tackles. If they are successful in getting pressure up the middle, Brady will not be able to step up away from the outside pressure of Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker.
During the regular season their perceived weakness was their secondary, which was considered young and lacking the speed to match up against good receivers. But the last three games have proved otherwise, and the major reason why the Panthers are in the Super Bowl is the play of their secondary. The Carolina secondary has been just as physical as the line. Last week they smothered the Eagles' wideouts, jamming them at the line of scrimmage and making big hits. This style of defense is perfect for facing the Patriots' offense. The Patriots like to throw the underneath passes and the best way to defend this is to jam the receivers and disrupt the timing. CB Ricky Manning has had an unbelievable two games. He picked off McNabb three times and his interception in overtime set up the game-winning score against the Rams. Manning along with Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin mauled the Eagles receivers and are capable of doing the same to Deion Branch, David Givens and Troy Brown.
In the playoffs, special teams can be the difference maker and the units of both clubs have contributed to their team's road to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have one of the best clutch kickers in Adam Vinatieri, who has made six of seven in the playoffs, including the big go-ahead field goal against the Titans. Punter Ken Walter has not had the big numbers, averaging 30.3 yards per punt. The Patriots' return game has not produced either, averaging only 16.8 yards per kickoff return. The lack of production by New England's punter and subpar performance of their return game is why the Patriots do not have the edge in special teams.
The Panthers have a very good kicker in John Kasay, who is 8 of 10 on field goals. But in a game where field position will be important, the Panthers Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun will play a big role. Sauerbrun is averaging 42.9 per punt with four kicks inside the 20. Rod Smart has done the job on returns, averaging 26.4 yards on kickoffs.
WR Steve Smith vs. CB Ty Law. Smith has been the big playmaker for Carolina and his speed and quickness will be a concern for New England. Law is one of the league's premier shutdown corners who is coming off a huge three-interception performance.
QB Jake Delhomme vs. Patriots pass defense. Belichick is renowned for coming up with game plans that confuse and disrupt opposing quarterbacks. His latest victim was Peyton Manning. Delhomme must protect the football and make a few big completions to help his team win.
Panthers' defensive line vs. Patriots' offensive line. Tom Brady has been untouched throughout these playoffs and his offensive line has been solid. The Panthers' defensive line is the best in the game and needs to play a big game.
The Panthers have thrived on third down thus far in the playoffs, while the Patriots have struggled. Carolina offense has converted 42 percent of its third down opportunities. Their ability to run the football on first down has put them consistently in makeable third downs. The Panthers' defense has been dominant, holding opponents to 25 percent, including the Eagles to 2 of 13.
The Patriots' offense has not done as well on third down, converting on 38.7 percent. Belichick has been a gambler on fourth down, where they have been very successful, making 4 of 5. As good as the defense has been overall, the Patriots' third-down defense has struggled, allowing opponents to convert 44 percent in their two wins.
Belichick won the coach of the year and is known as a master tactician on the defensive side of the ball, but this season proved what type of leader he really is. It is truly amazing that the Patriots won 16 games (including postseason), after starting 42 different players due to injuries. A victory in this game solidifies his place as an elite head coach in the history of the NFL.
John Fox took over a 1-15 team and imposed his personality, turning this team into a physical and aggressive group on both sides of the ball. He was a proven defensive coordinator and he has brought that philosophy to Carolina. But what can't be overlooked is how he has built this team with some the personnel moves to transform the franchise.
New England comes into this game as the favorite and considering its 14-game winning streak that is understandable. The Panthers were not supposed to be here, but you can't overlook the similarities between this Panthers team and the Pats of two years ago. The Panthers are a team built on defense and are led by a young unknown QB who was not their starter at the beginning of the season.
But don't be shocked when this Panthers team comes away with a victory. Carolina is capable of pulling the upset. It is a physical football team that possesses a defense that can dominate a game, a power running game with Stephen Davis, and it does not make mistakes. Both teams play games close to the vest and Carolina has won a record 10 games by a touchdown or less. Carolina Panthers fans have many reasons to believe that their team can win.
The Pick: Carolina
Throughout the season, the Real FootballTM staff will bring you an "insiders" analysis of key matchups in the league. The Real FootballTM staff includes coaches, players, scouts and other experts with real experience inside the NFL who give you access to a unique, exclusive look inside the game.