Super Bowl Marquee Matchup
Breaking down the big one -- from a Patriots' point of view
By Dan Schwab, Real Football
Now that all the slick offenses have been sent home for the offseason, the brick-built defenses of Carolina and New England will square off in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme will be hard-pressed to do what Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb could not, namely put points on the board against two of the league's toughest defenses. The Patriots are playing for their second Lombardi Trophy in three years, while the Panthers have made it to the big game for the first time in their franchise's nine-year history.
Patriots offense vs. Panthers defense
Two years ago, first-year starter Tom Brady led New England to a Super Bowl championship and was named the game's MVP. Since then, he has drawn comparisons to Joe Montana, not only for his postseason successes but also for his leadership skills and ability to throw accurately from a variety of launch points. Against a solid Carolina defense that can create pressure with its front four, expect to see Brady throwing from three-step drops as well as from the shotgun and play-action series. Brady's ability to spread the ball around in the passing game (10 players caught balls vs. Tennessee in the divisional playoff round, eight vs. Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game) will put added pressure on Carolina's Cover 2 defense. The Panthers like to use their safeties to support their cornerbacks on the perimeter. But if Carolina stays with that scheme, watch for Brady to get his tight ends and backs more involved in the passing game, especially with delayed releases and seam routes. If Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria continue to drop balls early in the game, expect to see Larry Centers, the league's all-time receiver out of the backfield, and Kevin Faulk play a bigger role.
The Patriots, who finished the regular season ranked 12th in the league in rushing attempts (29.6 per game) but 27th in yards per game (100.4), will need a strong effort out of backups Dan Koppen and Russ Hochstein when they go against one of the NFL's best defensive tackle tandems in Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins. Given Carolina's speed to pursue the outside runs, look for New England to stay inside the tackles, using the tight end or slot back to trap block Buckner and Jenkins. New England has also used spread formations and a no-huddle look to create running lanes and prevent defenses from substituting fresh players.
Panthers offense vs. Patriots defense
QB Jake Delhomme has been everything his coaching staff could ask for in a first-year starter. Delhomme makes good decisions (102.6 QB rating in the postseason) and plays within himself. With only 43 yards rushing on 41 carries during the season, Delhomme is not a running threat but he did scramble for a first down last week against Philadelphia on a broken play. Steve Smith is the go-to receiver in Carolina's passing game, exploding for 11 receptions and 298 yards against Dallas and St. Louis before his three-catch, 26-yard performance last week in Philadelphia. Expect DC Ty Law, whose aggressive style of coverage held Colts wideout Marvin Harrison to three receptions last week, to line up on Smith's side on each play as the Patriots try to involve their safeties in more blitz possibilities this week. The New England defense that forced Manning into four interceptions last Sunday will pressure and confuse Delhomme into making mistakes.
The Panthers run a conservative, ground-oriented offense that stresses ball control and minimal turnovers. At the heart of the system is halfback Stephen Davis (318 carries, 4.5-yard average in 2003), who set franchise records in the regular season despite missing two games with injuries. Even if the calf strain suffered by LB Tedy Bruschi limits his availability this week, the Patriots will counter with heavy doses of LB Ted Johnson, who excels against physical running games. With NT Ted Washington anchoring the center of the field, look for HB DeShaun Foster, who had 14 carries for 60 yards and a tremendous second-effort touchdown last week, to challenge New England's hard-hitting safeties on perimeter runs. The Panthers faced just two teams that use the 3-4 defense this season (Atlanta twice, and Houston) and lost two of those three matchups.
Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, who missed seven of his 22 field goal attempts at home during the season, regained his folk-hero status by kicking a 46-yard game-winning field goal against Tennessee. Vinatieri then tied a postseason record with five successful attempts last week against the Colts. Punter Ken Walter is not known for his distance, averaging just 37.7 yards per punt this season (31st in the league) but he has dropped nine of his last 15 punts inside the 20-yard line, forcing opponents to drive the length of the field.
Like Vinatieri, Panthers kicker John Kasay has also connected on five field goals in a postseason game (against Dallas in the wild-card round). Kasay also drilled a 52-yarder against the Rams. No stranger to pressure, Kasay kicked the winning points in five games this season, three in overtime. Punter Todd Sauerbrun, who led the NFC with 44.4-yard average this season, punted seven times last week with two fourth-quarter punts inside the 20-yard line. Both Rod Smart and Steve Smith are dangerous kick returners. Smart had a 40-yard kickoff return against the Eagles last week while Smith returned a punt 53 yards for a touchdown in the last game of the season.
C Jeff Mitchell vs. NT Ted Washington. Mitchell has shown quickness in reaching linebackers and three-technique tackles but has problems anchoring when covered by a down lineman. Washington's main job will be to drive Mitchell into the backfield, effectively eliminating Carolina's trap block and misdirection series.
WR Bethel Johnson vs. Nickelback Terry Cousin. Johnson, the fastest player in the 2003 draft, has the speed to separate on deep routes, as he did against the Titans for a 41-yard touchdown. Cousin, who lost his starting position to Ricky Manning, was flagged twice last week and will be a prime target for the Patriots to exploit.
QB Tom Brady vs. Panthers Pass Defense. Brady is a master of the short perimeter pass, using screens and three-step drops to neutralize the pass rush. Last week Carolina's Cover 2 scheme called for its safeties to support the corners who were playing press coverage. As a result, the seam routes were left open. If Brady sees this formation, look for delayed releases from the tight end or backs with the ball going up the middle of the field.
The Patriots have converted 38.7 percent of their third-down attempts this postseason but have allowed their opponents a 44.4 percent success rate. The numbers are much better on fourth down: New England's offense has made good on four of five attempts while the defense has yielded on just three of eight opportunities. The Patriots have done a poor job in the red zone, scoring a touchdown just once in their last seven possessions.
The Panthers have been getting the job done on both sides of the ball, converting 42.2 percent of third downs while holding opponents to a paltry 25.0 percent success rate in the playoffs. Foster is the man in short yardage situations -- he has converted all four of his attempts this postseason. Smith has been the most consistent receiver on short and intermediate distances.
Stopping high-powered offenses is nothing new for Bill Belichick. As defensive coordinator of the Giants, he humbled the mighty Bills offense in 1991. He repeated the feat with these same Patriots against the Rams in 2002. Hence, the job the New England defensive unit did on the Colts' attack last week was hardly surprising. Belichick's defenses focus their attack on their opponents' strengths rather than their weaknesses. Removing Harrison as Manning's primary target forced the Indianapolis quarterback to hold the ball too long or move out of the pocket, which led to turnovers. Belichick has won all five postseason games he has witnessed as the Patriots' coach and he will not be outdone in terms of preparation.
Entering Week 14 against the lowly Cardinals after three consecutive losses, John Fox made several key personnel decisions that have propelled the Panthers through the playoffs. Fox's decision to stay with rookie DC Manning after Cousin and Reggie Howard had recovered from injuries has led to Manning becoming Carolina's biggest star in the playoffs. Resting Davis in Week 15 against Detroit allowed him to return to his Pro Bowl form for the postseason. Starting LB Dan Morgan in the playoffs after an injury-prone season has brought more flexibility to the defense. Fox will need all three of these players to perform at the top of their games to gain an advantage on a Patriots team that rarely makes mistakes.
For the third consecutive year, the old adage that defense wins championships will ring true. Both teams have the ability to stop the run and force turnovers in the passing game. Both teams have proven kickers and potential in the return game. What will give the Patriots the edge in this matchup will be the flexibility of their offense, which has changed weekly according to the opponent. New England can come out with a spread formation with five wide receivers, straining Carolina's ability to cover the field. The Patriots can also work from their three-wide receiver sets, stretching the defense to open the running game or get the backs involved in the passing game. On defense, Washington must dominate the inside with the linebackers sealing the off-tackle holes, denying the Carolina running backs the chance to turn upfield or cutback. Look for the Patriots to score first, forcing the Panthers to become one-dimensional. At the end of the game, dynasty will be the word applied to the team from Foxboro.
The Pick: New England
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.