The matchup is set. The 11-5 Carolina Panthers advanced to SB XXXVIII by knocking off Bill Parcell’s Cowboys, stopping “The Greatest Show” on its own turf, and leaving the disappointing Eagles one game short of just being happy to be there for the 3rd straight year, and now must try to stop the longest single season winning streak since the undefeated 1972 Dolphins.
Almost unanimously, Super Bowl previews will be brimming over with superlatives and anointments of players and teams as the best of this, and the best of that. You won’t find that here. Instead we will rip apart the soft underbelly of analysis, and tell it like it is. Find the warts on the participants, the mismatches, and truth behind the surface level statistics that few look beyond, and you find the team that will win 9 times out of 10, keeping in mind that ‘both teams players get paid to make plays, and they’ll both make them’ and that a game that uses a ball that is shaped funny and bounces wherever it wants to will sometimes defy logic.
PANTHER OFFENSE vs. PATRIOT DEFENSE
This matchup incites the cliché that games are won in the trenches as well as any you can find. The Panthers live and die by running the football, and John Fox strikes no one as a coach who will use the SB as his stage to break from his philosophy and try a different approach. The Panthers are a smash-mouth, come right at you running game. But they will be facing a run defense that is top-notch.
Lets take a look inside the numbers:
The Panther running game averaged 32.6 rushes for 130.7 yards, and a 4.0 yards per carry. The cumulative defenses they did this against allowed, to every team, per game, 26.6 rushes for 120.4 yards and 4.2 per carry. To sum it up, the Panther running game, against their opponents ran 6 more times for 10 more yards per game than the average team did.
The Patriot defense allowed, per game, 25.1 rushes for 89.6 yards and a 3.6 average. That was against competition that averaged, in all their games 28.1 rushes, 112.5 yards and a 4.0 average. The Pats held their opposition’s running game to 3 less carries and 22.9 fewer yards than they got against the average D they faced. If we put those numbers together to statistically predict the Panther run O against the Pat run D, you end up with 30.4 rushes for 103.9 yards and 3.4 per rush.
But as promised, lets look at bit deeper. (This is touted as the key matchup, so it will get the most attention). The Panthers faced 8 teams that had horrible run defenses, allowing 4.4 or more per rush. They faced 8 that had decent to good run defenses allowing 4.0 or less (on average 3.8, that is the best 8 defenses they ran against were not quite as good as the one they will face Sunday). Stephen Davis, against the weak run defenses ran for 122 yards per game on 24.5 carries, 5.0 a pop. Against the better ones, he ran for 84.3 yards on 21 carries, or 4.0 a carry.
Davis ran left 81 times for 430 yards, a 5.3 average, up the middle 85-325, 3.8, and right 74-259, 3.5. With Ted Washington manning the middle that moderate success is the best that the Panthers could hope for. With veteran, technique-sound, run-stuffing Bobby Hamilton across from rookie Jordan Gross, it would seem that the direction the Panthers have been least successful running all year won’t drastically change. The key matchup is Todd Stuessie blocking Richard Seymour in the running game. Can the lanky, 6’6” Stuessie handle Richard Seymour in the running game? Whether he can or not will be the difference in Carolina succeeding or failing in their run oriented game plan.
The most highlighted advantage either team has in this game is the Patriot pass defense against the Panther pass offense. Jake Delhomme is being described as a QB who will only throw if handed a signed Executive Order, and will only hope that nothing awful happens when he does. That is not true. Delhomme is actually a gunslinger whose coach has his holster snapped shut most of the time. Delhomme will not fear throwing the ball up the field when given the opportunity. Over half of the passes he has completed all season have gone to his 2 starting WRs. He may not get a lot of opportunities, but when he gets them he will be thinking big play. The Panther offensive line does a good job of protecting him, and they must because he doesn’t possess the mobility of to help himself against the pass rush. With his big play mentality, and the Patriots penchant for creating blitzes that will make an OL think, if that OL can fend off the blitzes, Delhomme will have the chance to make some big plays, if they cannot, there will be a lot of balls throw into danger.
The Patriot pass defense, quite simply does it all. They cover as well as anyone, over the entire field. The combination of just 53.1% completion percentage against, while still allowing only 10.6 yards per completion, and an NFL 8th fewest 37 pass plays of 20+ yards is truly remarkable. Common practice is you in order to force incomplete passes, you must force teams to throw up the field, but the Patriots defense has done as good a job as any in recent memory of making it difficult to throw anywhere on the field. The Patriot defense forced 290 incomplete passes (including Ints) an incredible 27 more than the next highest in the NFL. Combine that with 41 QB sacks, and you have over 20 negative plays in the passing game from each opponent the Patriots face. Of course, another key factor in the Patriot defense is turnovers. The Pats led the NFL with 29 Ints during the regular season. The QBs they faced averaged one per game against everyone else. In the playoffs, they added 5 more against 2 QBs who had thrown 15 all year in a combined 30 games. In essence, the Patriots will intercept twice as many passes as the typical team you face. Most Pats fans know that the Patriot pass defense allowed, by far, the lowest QB rating against in the NFL, by a wide margin. Simply, all of the QBs the Patriots faced combined to play at the level of the lowest rated QB in the NFL. What is even more important is the consistency. All season long, only one starting QB had a higher QB rating in a game vs. the Patriots than his season long QB rating. Of course the bar in that case wasn’t very high, as it was Danny Kannell exceeding his 49.1 overall rating with a 57.2 vs. the Pats.
While the advantage seems clear, that advantage can change with one lapse from the Patriot defense, and one big play from the Panther offense. Unless the Patriot defense cannot carry 18 games of consistency through a 19th, that seems unlikely, though.
The Panther offense is not incapable of scoring against the Patriot defense, but it must play its best game of the season be effective. Todd Stuessie must own Richard Seymour, the Panthers must excel at picking up the exotic blitzing schemes of the Patriots, and Jake Delhomme must gamble for the big play and do it successfully against a defense that few QBs have been able to, while not throwing the Interceptions that appear to be waiting to happen.
PATRIOT OFFENSE vs. PANTHER DEFENSE
This could be one of the most even matchups in SB history. Everywhere you look at the Patriot offense and the Panther defense you see units that did just a bit more than play to the average of their competition. The Patriot offense scored 21.8 points a game, against teams that allowed 19.45 on average. The Panther defense allowed 19.0 ppg to a schedule of teams that averaged 19.5. The Patriots ran the ball for 100.4 against defenses that allowed an average of 113.6, including 5 games against the 4 best run defenses in the NFL that don’t play their home games at Gillette Stadium, making up the difference with more use of the screen passing game as a substitute for running. The Panther defense allowed 107.6 rushing yards to offenses that averaged 110.7. The Panther defense had 26 takeaways, 18th most (or 12th fewest) in the NFL, the Patriot offense had 24 giveaways, 7th fewest (or 25th most). The Panthers were slightly better than average rushing the QB, and the Pats were slightly better than average protecting the QB. The league average was about 34 sacks, the Panther D had 40, the Patriot O allowed 32, but zero in the 2 playoff games. Again a standoff. If there was ever a matchup where you could expect each unit to do just about what it always does, this is it.
Expect the Patriot offense to reasonably often, and somewhat effectively, if not spectacularly. That’s what the Patriot offense did all season, and that’s what the Panther defense allowed all season. The Patriot offense should run for around 100 yards, most of them hard fought. The Patriot passing game should be efficient and high percentage. As always they will take their shots deep at times, and whether or not they have success doing will be the difference between a thoroughly average offensive day by their standards, and a good one.
When you look inside the matchups, the tendency that each unit will do about what they do against everyone stands out as well. The Panthers totaled almost half of their sacks between their 2 D.E.s. Of course, their top threat, Mike Rucker, who had 12 sacks will be up against Matt Light who has done as good a job pass blocking as any LT in the NFL (facing a laundry list of top pass rushers, and allowing only 3.5 sacks all season) somewhat neutralizing each teams biggest passrushing/passblocking threat. On the other side, Julius Peppers, he of immense potential, but less than spectacular production (just 7 reg season sacks, and 1 more in 3 post season games) will be up against his complete opposite, unheralded but surprisingly effective Tom Ashworth. In the running game, the Patriots find a matchup they like in 2 pass rush focused D.E.s, and an undersized (233, 234,242) group of Lbs, but find the matchup they will not like with inexperienced injury fill-in Russ Hochstein facing monster DT Kris Jenkins. The Patriot WRs are still somewhat of mystery to project. They mix and match them to situations, and Tom Brady will willingly throw without prejudice to any one of them as often as they get open. One thing shines through, Patriot WRs average about 10 catches for 140 yards a game, and don’t deviate far from that number in many games, but there is no way of knowing how those catches will be distributed. Between Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens, and maybe Bethel Johnson, someone, which is anyone’s guess, will have a relatively big day, and someone will be pretty silent. From game to game, those roles change often.
The Panther secondary can best be described as very average compared to other 18 defenses the Patriots have faced. The Patriot receivers won’t have a field day with the Panther coverage, but won’t struggle against it either. Everything points to a SB that has the Patriot offense, and the Panther defense each have an afternoon typical of how they played all season long. The key variables will be whether the Pats can take advantage of the rest of the front 7 in the running game, or whether Jenkins takes advantage of them (in this case a potential Panther advantage), whether the Pats can hit the long ball when they take their shots (a potential Pat advantage) and whether pass rushers and pass blockers that seem as even a matchup as you’ll find will turn into dominance by any one of the OL or DL (possible advantage to either team). The Patriots will spend time in the red zone. As with the rest of this matchup, expect a standoff. The Pats should put the ball in the endzone on half of their trips, and be stopped on half. Any difference in that would be a big swing in the ‘winner’ of this aspect of the battle, in either direction.
Both teams have very good kickers, who unless they are 50+ yards out are all but a lock to convert in this game. The Panthers hold an edge in the punting game, although not as large as it may seem at first glance. Todd Sauerbrun averages 7 more yards per punt than Ken Walter. However the Panthers have allowed 402 punt return yards to 220 by the Pats. Walter put 25 punts inside the 20 with only 3 touchbacks, Sauerbrun 22 with 9. Clearly Sauerbrun has the stronger leg. That will be an advantage to the Panthers in their own end of the field, but when the teams are punting from about midfield on in, the advantage swings to the Patriots. The wild card is that Sauerbrun’s punts are more returnable than Walters. In 9 out of 10 games, that is not very relevant, but in the event that a big return happens, it is more likely to come from the Patriots, and a big play on special teams can alter a game in a hurry. Both teams have above average return games and both teams will have the ball in the hands of returners with the ability to and history of taking it to the house. The return units are evenly matched. In the coverage units both teams have allowed one TD return. Each covers K.O.s well, 21.1 for the Pats, 20.4 for the Panthers. The Pats are among the best in punt coverage, at 6.3 a return, while the Panthers show a weakness here, at 11.5, close to the worst in the league. Special teams should not be a decisive factor in SB XXXVIII, because both teams play them well. A big play return or turnover could have a big impact on the game, but neither team is so good at creating them or so poor in allowing them that it seems likely.
WHAT THE PANTHERS MUST DO TO WIN
Contrary to popular belief, the key to game for the Panthers is their passing game, not their running game. Whether they run well, or are shut down, the running game is not going to produce points, the passing game must. The Panthers will not be able to sustain drives without making plays in the passing game. There are plenty of dangers out there for Delhomme in the passing game, but for the Panthers to win, he must not only stay away from mistakes, but he must do it by taking chances to make big plays. Moving down the field in small chunks will not work for the Panthers in this game. They must stem the tide of being overmatched by the best defense in the NFL by making multiple big plays. Defensively, to win they must control the red zone. The Patriots will find the red zone, but if the Panthers are to win, they must not allow them to find the end zone. Somewhere, at some point the Panthers are going to need to force the Patriots into a mistake that shows up on the scoreboard. They will need to score on defense or special teams, or give the offense a very short field to convert into a score.
WHAT THE PATRIOTS MUST DO TO WIN
The Patriots must avoid the uncharacteristic mistake that can change a game. Defensively they must play the same football that brought them here, and play in a very physical manner in both run and pass defense. It is a big play defense, but sound fundamental team defense is the meat and potatoes of what they must do, and big plays are the gravy. On offense, patience is key. Their defense will hold serve for them if they bog down on a drive. Forcing the offense will give the Panthers a chance at what may be there only way to put many points on the board against the Patriot D, turnovers. Play high-percentage, low risk football, and accept that while that approach will keep the chains moving it won’t put 50 points on the board, but 50 aren’t needed. The offense must play its best football when it enters the red zone, and keep the pressure on the Panthers by coming out with 7, not 3.
Both teams will have limited success running the ball, and the running game won’t have a huge impact in putting points on the board for either team. Both may lean heavily on the run, but both will need plays in the passing game to succeed. This is a clear advantage to the Patriots who are better on both offense and defense in the passing game, and have a large turnover advantage on both sides as well. The game will be define by Tom Brady surgically carving the Panther pass D, patiently taking whatever they will give him, and Jake Delhomme struggling under the pressure of both the pass rush, and the coverage. The Patriots will score a TD on defense, and Delhomme will make at least one or two plays that look impossible. In the end, defense wins Championships, and the best defense dominates the game.
Patriots 24 Panthers 3