By: Ian Logue/
January 29, 2004

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HOUSTON, TX -- Finally, the hype is winding down and it appears there may actually be a football game in the near future.

It's been nearly two weeks since the Patriots last football game, and well over a month since New England last played on the road. However that will finally end when the team takes the field on Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Houston against the Carolina Panthers.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has had two weeks to prepare for the Panthers, and as always he doesn't appear to be taking anything for granted. According to published reports Belichick had loud music blaring from speakers throughout the team's practice on Thursday, including a few cuts from the coach's favorite band Bon Jovi.

With the team having not played on the road for six weeks, in the event there is a large pro-Panthers crowd he wants to make sure New England is ready for the possible crowd noise they'll need to deal with.

The team reportedly practiced for about an hour and 40 minutes wearing just their shoulder pads and shorts, and linebacker Tedy Bruschi reportedly continued to take snaps with the first string and moved well despite a leg injury.

"The leg is good," Bruschi told reporters on Thursday. "I practiced yesterday and I didn't have any setbacks, so I feel like I'm good and ready to go."

That's good news for a Patriots defense that will need to be physical against a Carolina offense that during the postseason has played extremely well. The Panthers have averaged 373.7-yards per game, along with 5.9-yards per play. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has directed Carolina's offense well, completing 61.4% of his passes (best in the NFL for teams who played at least 2-games during the postseason) and averaged a league leading 9.5-yards per attempt.

They also have held the ball for an impressive average of 35:13, best in the NFL.

Needless to say New England will need to make sure their defense is on top of their game when they take the field on Sunday.

"They are an extremely well-coached team, and they don't make the big mistake that a lot of teams make," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison told the media on Thursday. "They are very efficient and very patient. If something doesn't work, they don't try to force anything."

That's certainly been the case for Delhomme who's thrown three touchdowns and just one interception during the postseason. He's been solid thus far during the playoffs, but then again so had Indianapolis Colts quarterback and co-MVP Peyton Manning who had been near perfect in his two games prior to facing the Patriots defense.

That defense shut him down and forced even an experienced QB like Manning to make mistakes including four interceptions. Despite the success they had defensive lineman Richard Seymour told reporters on Thursday that he doesn't feel New England's defense has even played up to their potential so far during the postseason.

"We really haven't put together our best game yet," said Seymour. "That's something that we need to do here on Sunday."

"We're on the national stage to do it. All the guys are ready and we're ready to get this game going."

Two weeks may be great for preparation and even better for injuries, but thankfully the hype is coming to an end.

Just a little over two days before there is finally a football game. Looks like fans aren't the only ones who think that kickoff can't come soon enough.