By: Bob George/
January 21, 2004

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Peyton Manning was the greatest thing since Norm Van Brocklin and his point-a-minute offense some 50 years back.

Marvin Harrison was making Jerry Rice seem like Jerry Smith.

Tom Moore looked like a prime candidate to have an offense named after him. How about the "Score Moore Offense"?

Denver. Kansas City. Reduced to touch football duffers.

Indianapolis looked like the biggest juggernaut this side of the 101st Airborne. Nothing could stop it. Calling it scary was being conservative. Marcus Pollard suggested that they should just mail the Colts their rings, and nobody scoffed at that notion.

Thank goodness that they actually do play the games. And thank goodness that the New England Patriots are awfully good at an important facet of the NFL known as "truth extraction". If the term "truth extraction" is not clear, then consider the following:

If something is too good to be true, it usually is.

And, even better:

Before you bestow praise on some NFL entity for what great things it has done, look first at who they did it to before you lay that crown on their head.

The Patriots did just that. They showed the NFL exactly what the Colt offense was made of on Sunday. They also showed the NFL exactly what the Bronco and Chief defenses were made of. The Patriots picked off Manning four times as the rest of the league looked aghast with shock. The Patriots held Manning under fifty percent passing as "experts" picked their jaws off the floor. Ty Law had as many picks as Harrison had receptions, with Law outgaining Harrison in yards after the catch. Fired Kansas City defensive coordinator Greg Robinson likely needs some heavy psychotherapy right now.

The Patriots now head to Houston next week, and will take on a Carolina Panthers squad who is trying to win the first Vince in their history. The Panthers were NFC South champs, and have posted three incredibly impressive wins to get to this point. Even though the Patriots are 6 ½ (down from 7) point favorites to win Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Panthers are being hailed as a powerful opponent for the Patriots, and look to give the AFC Champs a tough defensive struggle.

Look at what Carolina has done to get to this point. They beat Dallas and its suffocating defense at home. Then they went on the road and shut down the Greatest Show On Turf on its home turf in overtime. To top it off, they went into Philadelphia and knocked off an Eagle squad who was hell bent on breaking a two-year hex in NFC title games.

Unbelievable. The Rams were the two seed. The Eagles were the one seed. And Carolina beat them both. And Bill Belichick gave a press conference on Monday which he said, among other things, that he knows nothing about the Panthers and hadn't even begun to study them.

Trust us, he's begun at press time. And so have we.

Belichick will take the high road. He'll break down every play in every game and find out all the tendencies of Todd Steussie, Brentson Buckner and Mike Minter. Not us. All we need is three games to get the job done.

Taking nothing away from the Panthers in their pursuit of the same Holy Grail the Patriots are chasing, a case can be made that the Panthers likely played opposition similar to what the Colts faced on their way to their playoff doom against the Patriots. Getting to this point is a big deal for the Panthers, but the three opponents they defeated along the way deserve a little closer look-see to learn more about the Carolinians and what they are really capable of.

The Panthers opened the postseason with a 29-10 win at home against Dallas. Never mind the rest of the nation hating Carolina for having the temerity to knock Saint Bill Parcells out of the playoffs after the greatest "feel good" season mankind has ever known. The Panthers put the clamps on the Cowboys, sure enough. The problem is that plastic toy handcuffs would have gotten the job done instead of clamps.

Shutting down the Cowboy running game isn't too hard to do. Troy Hambrick is as big time a running back as Sedrick Shaw was. Hambrick had 29 yards on 8 carries. Quarterback Quincy Carter had only four fewer yards.

Carter was an easy mark. He had a passer rating of 56.9. The leading receiver was a running back, Richie Anderson. Carter is as overrated as it gets.

Scoring 29 points against Dallas may have been a neat trick. But included in those 29 points are five field goals, two of which came after the Panthers were stopped at the one-yard line. The Panthers had a 10-minute edge in time of possession, but only finished two drives against a tired Cowboy defense.

And they gave up ten points to Dallas, ten more than the Patriots did at home to these same Cowboys.

On the Panthers went to the Edward Jones Dome, and a date with the St. Louis Rams. Once again, field goals were the bill of fare for the Panthers as John Kasay tried five and made three. One of their touchdowns in regulation was a freak fumble recovery in the end zone, and Jake Delhomme was the one who committed the fumble. The Panthers had this game won easy in regulation, and never should have let the Rams back into this game.

But the real story about this game is that the Panthers didn't win this game as much as Mike Martz lost it. His decision to play for a tie at the end of regulation (a man after Ara Parseghian's heart, and Michigan State alumni know exactly what we mean by this) was one of the more stupid decisions in a playoff game in quite some time. Martz showed again that he is a terrible game manager, and his decisions down the stretch cost the Rams this game. It never should have come to Steve Smith's touchdown catch in double overtime.

The Patriots know about Martz. His refusal to run Marshall Faulk two Super Bowls ago when the Patriots dared him to run helped greatly in the eventual Patriot win. Lovie Smith took the Bears' head coaching job; he should have been offered the Rams' job.

In the NFC Championship Game last Sunday, the Panthers took on an Eagle squad which has been snakebitten in this arena. CBS's Deion Sanders told everyone that the Patriots should be Eagle fans in this game, and he was as dead on as he was about Law versus Harrison. Simply stated, the Panthers beat an overrated and not-very-good Eagle squad, which is why you the Patriot fan wanted the Eagles to win this game. It would have made for an easier Super Bowl win.

To beat the Eagles, you merely shut down Donovan McNabb and you got them. That's exactly what the Panthers did. McNabb finished with a passer rating of 19.3. Greg Favors helped knock McNabb out of the game with a pancake job that IHOP would have been proud of (Mike Pereira, head of NFL officials, exonerated referee Bernie Kukar on this one). The Eagles were left with less offense than the 1906 Chicago White Sox. 14 points were plenty enough to get Carolina to Houston.

Now, the Panthers have the Patriots next on their docket. The Panthers now will have to deal with an Einstein quarterback who never makes mistakes, a head coach which makes Einstein look like Forrest Gump, and a defense which may head over to Iraq after the game just to stop all those guerillas from terrorizing Baghdad.

In other words, this ain't Dallas, this ain't St. Louis, and this ain't Philadelphia. You're talking about a whole different metric now. Great as the Panther defensive line may be, what happens if the Patriots are simply smarter and don't need to be stronger? Ricky Manning may have picked off McNabb three times, but do you really expect Manning will even get a whiff of the pig in the game next Sunday if Tom Brady is doing the pitching?

The game still figures to be a good one. But like Indianapolis, look at whom Carolina has beaten to get here, and take things in stride.