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What's that you say?

Two weeks worth of over-info gets in the way of picking a winner

Updated: Saturday January 31, 2004 3:46PM
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HOUSTON -- Knowledge is supposed to be power, one of my professors once told me in a lecture about skipping class, and I suppose that's true enough. But too much information can be a bad, bad thing. Too much knowledge can lead to a brain brownout.

Two weeks ago, the New England Patriots were just about everybody's Super Bowl pick. And they probably should have been. They had dismantled the hottest team in the NFL playoffs, the Indianapolis Colts. They had just won their 14th straight game. The team they'd be playing in the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers, had beaten the favored Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, true. But the Eagles had some major faults.

The Patriots, it seemed, already were rehearsing their Disney World spiel.

Well, here we are on the eve of the big game, and the Patriots are no longer such sure things. Two weeks of dissection and discussion and interviews and introspection have only managed to muck up the one, important question in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Patriots or Panthers?

At this point, it's not easy to answer. I'm bleeding statistics out of my right ear. Opinions and gut feelings are leaking out of my left. The Patriots have that great defense, you know, with all the numbers to back it up. Only 14.9 points a game, tops in the league. All that.

But the Panthers have "overcome the odds," they've won on the road, they're "the underdogs." They have the "intangibles."

Then again, the Panthers have some pretty fine statistics to bandy about, too. A top-10 defense. More than 1,400 yards from their punishing running back. They don't throw much, but when the Panthers do, they average 12 yards a catch, which is better than the Patriots (11.4).

But, wait. The Patriots have some "intangibles" of their own. Coach Bill Belichick is a "master schemer." Quarterback Tom Brady is "poised." This team is "experienced."

My ears hurt like "the devil."

Everything was so much easier when the Panthers were considered second-rate. But now, after wins against the Cowboys and Rams and Eagles, the last couple of them on the road, everyone has to at least consider the Panthers. So everyone digs.

Despite basking in the light of the Super Bowl, Jake Delhomme has not forgotten his small-town upbringing.
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Did you know that, statistically, New England has the seventh best defense in the league (in total yards)? Carolina's is eighth.

Did you know that New England has the 17th-ranked offense in the league (in total yards)? Carolina's is 16th.

Does any of that help?

Did you know that, statistically speaking, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme is playing a heck of a lot better this postseason than his counterpart, Brady (102.6 quarterback rating to 74.6). Does anyone know what a quarterback rating is?

You can do this back-and-forth thing all day. Or all week. Or for two weeks, like some people have, which explains the leaky and bleeding ears. You can bury yourself so far into the statistics and schemes and history of this game that you may end up missing the game itself.

Or you get to this point, where all you want to do is simplify. Throw out some of that knowledge. Forget some statistics. Go with the basics.

If you listen to any coach for any longer than five minutes, they'll talk about the three phases of every football game. So let's go that route.

Defense: The Patriots have the better defense. But it's not much better, statistically speaking or otherwise.

Offense: The Panthers have the better offense. But it's not much better, statistically speaking or otherwise. They run the ball better than the Patriots, though. Much better.

Special teams: Carolina has the better punter, and probably the better placekicker. New England probably returns kickoffs better. The two punt returners look pretty equal. And New England is better defensively, on its coverage teams, both on kickoff and punts.

There are other things you have to consider, I guess, when addressing the ultimate question -- the so-called intangibles. Truth is, you can work intangibles any way you want to. So I'm skipping that.

There are injuries, too, and freak plays and turnovers and all sorts of unforeseen circumstances that could change the outcome of a game. But if you can't see them, there's no use guessing about it.

There is one wild card that's worth mentioning. Many people figure this game could hinge on Belichick and his ability to come up with a killer game plan given two weeks of preparation. Still, as good as Belichick is -- and he is -- that factor is overblown, too. Remember, Carolina coach John Fox already has taken another coaching great, Bill Parcells, and another top-ranked defense (the Cowboys finished No. 1 in yards allowed) and beaten the tar out of them.

So just taking the basics ... New England defense ... Carolina running game ... New England's lack of running game ... Carolina's front four, which is why the Panthers' defense is pretty comparable to the Patriots' ... New England's 14 straight wins ... a hot Delhomme ... special teams that look to be in New England's slight favor but, really, could go either way.

It's confusing, sure. The Super Bowl has a way of distorting everything around it. Proportion gets pounded. Moderation is mugged. Thoughtful analysis gives way to frenzied conjecture and wild leaps of logic.

But when it's all boiled down and purified, this is what comes out:

Carolina 24, New England 20.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go get some cotton for my ears.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.

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