Saturday, January 31, 2004
Pats primed for second title
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
HOUSTON -- Rarely has a Super Bowl coach overshadowed his team the way that New England's Bill Belichick has eclipsed the Patriots player profile this week. But even in a week when Belichick seemed to gain further stature, with some suggesting that a second Super Bowl triumph in three seasons could catapult him to another level, the Pats coach has been quick to remind everyone that players will determine the outcome on Sunday night.
"Once we kick it off," he said, "it's their game."
With that in mind, here are five on-the-field reasons the New England players will win Super Bowl XXXVIII:
Will Bill Belichick strike this familiar pose again on Sunday night?
In perhaps the blandest Super Bowl week in history, the Panthers seem to have enjoyed themselves more (at least relatively so), while the Patriots were undeniably businesslike. Not tight-assed, as some have suggested -- just businesslike. That may mean absolutely nothing when kickoff arrives, but there is a suspicion that the Panthers will be the more emotional team at the outset, playing with the usual underdog's chip on their shoulder. Passion is a good thing, for sure, but the problem with passion is that it characteristically wanes. One priority for New England, the better overall team but by a close margin, will be to survive and work through the initial Carolina surge. And when the emotion meter runs down and the passion gas gauge eventually hits "empty," and Carolina has ridden the wave for all it's worth, it will be very interesting to see how both teams respond. There is a reason that the two teams have a combined 16-4 record in games decided by seven points or fewer and are 8-1 in contests where the margin was three points or less. Both play remarkably well under pressure. Both make game-defining plays when the outcome is still to be determined. Both reflect the tough-mindedness of their coaches. But there reaches a point where talent and experience supercede passion. There comes a time in most Super Bowl games where knowing how to win, that most indefinable but invaluable element, is the most prized commodity. And while it is a nebulous quality, knowing how to win is a trump-card New England possesses in spades, and which it will play at a critical time. The Panthers won't be awed by the moment, but history indicates that first-time Super Bowl teams usually don't succeed, and having survived a title game only two years ago should provide the Patriots some advantage.
2. Make no mistake, the Panthers own the superior running game, statistically ranking seventh during the regular season, while the Patriots were No. 27. In fact, Carolina star tailback Stephen Davis rushed for more yards (1,444) than the combined yardage (1,280) efforts of New England tailbacks Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. But the hard-running Smith has come up big in the playoffs before -- as evidenced by his 22-carry and 100-yard performance against Indianapolis in the AFC championship outing two weeks ago -- and the bet is that the seven-year veteran will do it again. Smith has a 4.2-yard career average in the postseason, nearly a half-yard better than his regular-season average. His average in two playoff games this year is 4.4 yards. We're going to step out on a limb and predict (yeah, OK, call us crazy) Smith will actually out-rush Davis on Sunday evening. Look for the Pats to use tight end Christian Fauria more as an in-line blocker, and for him to give some added inside leverage after coming in motion toward the play. At the No. 2 tailback position, DeShaun Foster of Carolina appears to have an edge over Faulk. But the running game is just one component for these tailbacks and, when the quarterbacks need to check down, Faulk is the guy you want catching the ball. He had 48 catches in 2003, more than Davis and Foster combined, and can make defenders miss in space. Carolina weak-side linebacker Will Witherspoon is very good in coverage, but matched up against Faulk out in the flat, we'll take the Pats mercurial back. Count on the relatively anonymous Faulk moving the chains five times, between running the ball and catching it, on Sunday evening.
3. Nose tackle Ted "Mount" Washington claimed he weighed in this week at about 365 pounds. By any man's math, that's one pound for every day of the year, right? Or, in the case of the Super Bowl, it represents a year's worth of tonnage all crammed together for one big day. Because the Pats aligned virtually the entire AFC championship game in a "nickel" look, the gargantuan Washington played only a handful of snaps versus the Colts two weeks ago, with New England using only two traditional "down" linemen inside. But with the strength of the Carolina rushing attack, and the "wham" action and nifty inside switches the Panthers use to create big creases for Davis and Foster, look for Washington's snap count to be dramatically increased. The Panthers count on getting a helmet on a helmet, but Washington typically commands double-team attention, which means Carolina is going to have to make some adjustments. Look for Washington to get 20-25 snaps, usually on first-and-10 Sunday, and look for him to be effective even if he doesn't register a single tackle. Washington simply collapses the middle, clogs up traffic like a rush-hour fender-bender, and permits the Pats linebackers to run free to the ball. If he is on the field, it usually means the versatile Richard Seymour is playing end in the 3-4, not his position of preference, but the one where some personnel people feel he is most effective. The presence of Washington on the field might also mean that linebacker Tedy Bruschi, coming off a leg injury, won't face as many bodies coming at him. The Carolina offensive line has been the best unit in the league over the last several weeks of the regular season and the playoffs. But they will be challenged by Washington and it isn't likely that just one blocker can handle him.
4. Strong safety Rodney Harrison, who appeared in Super Bowl XXIX as a rookie special teams player for the San Diego Chargers, has waited a long time for a return engagement. Now that it's here, the veteran safety isn't about to squander the opportunity to earn his first Super Bowl ring. No offense to cornerback Ty Law, who has been magnificent in the postseason, but Harrison is the key to the New England secondary. Stationed in the back of the two-safety "shell" the Pats generally play, particularly on early downs, he has everything in front of him. And even at age 31, the 10-year veteran still chases the ball with remarkable efficiency and economy of motion. Harrison is a better player coming forward but, since the Panthers figure to run early and try to establish Davis as the primary, pace-setting force in the game, that is to the safety's advantage. Put him down for double-digit tackles right now. His duties, however, won't stop with stuffing the running game. Because the Panthers throw so many routes up the seam, and quarterback Jake Delhomme really likes to gun the ball inside, it's imperative Harrison and rookie free safety Eugene Wilson play decent coverage, as well. During their 14-game winning streak, the Pats have 29 interceptions, at least one in every victory in the lengthy skein. The bet here is that the cagey Harrison, playing up to the moment he has thought about for a long time, helps keep the winning streak and the interception string alive.
Because of the "empty" backfield, the Pats' cups will be full of champagne late Sunday evening. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis loves to use the five-wide receiver look and, while it exposes quarterback Tom Brady a little more to the Carolina pass rush, he won't be shy about spreading the field. Basically, it comes down to superiority in numbers, with the Panthers not having sufficient secondary help to cover five quick receivers. Carolina has benefited from the elevation of rookie Ricky Manning Jr. to the starting lineup late in the season because it allows Terry Cousin to play the "nickel" cornerback role, which is really his most effective position. But the Panthers simply aren't as deep in the "back end" as the Patriots are at wide receiver. The "dime" defenders, like Jarrod Cooper and Dante Wesley could have problems hanging with the Pats' small-but-fleet wideouts. Weak-side linebacker Witherspoon is an excellent athlete in space, and owns solid cover skills, but there could be times when he is asked to cover a wide receiver and not a back. Nothing against Witherspoon, an emerging force, but it will be a mismatch if he is isolated on receivers like Deion Branch or David Givens. While the Patriots will want to establish tailback Smith as a legitimate force, the bet is that they throw early, with Weis breaking out his mind-numbing assortment of screen passes and quick slants between the numbers, to get Brady into rhythm. The New England quarterback is like a point guard, distributing the ball to a variety of receivers, taking the quick read instead of just sitting back. On average, he completes passes to eight different receivers, and twice this season he had games where he connected with 10 different pass-catchers. The Pats are going to stretch the Carolina secondary to the breaking point and see if it snaps. The bet here is that, eventually, it will.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.