By: Bob George/BosSports.net
February 02, 2004

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If you are a perfectionist, read on. Otherwise, just bundle up and stake out your spot in Government Center for the rally. Go early, and please take the T.

This is for all Patriot fans who are a little puzzled that the Panthers got three scores of 30 or more yards. This is for all Patriot fans who can't fathom why Jake Delhomme was mistreated for 29 minutes and invincible for 31. This is for all Patriot fans who were pining for the their team to pull off the first shutout in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl XXXVIII can literally be divided into two chapters. Chapter one is a scoreless tie, and some of the best defense seen in the long history of the Big Game. Chapter two gave us the greatest quarterback duel in Super Bowl history. Trying to figure out why chapter one became chapter two is something that may only appeal to Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel. But it is something to consider as the 2004 Draft approaches, never mind the 2004 regular season and Patriot opponents who are desperately trying to find a way to beat the Patriots.

This is a scary question, but it has to be asked. Was the Patriot secondary exposed in the Super Bowl? Was this a seminal moment in Patriot history in the negative as well as the positive? Was this a repeat of the Kansas City game of 2002, which told the entire league that the Patriots are too old and slow and can be run roughshod over?

Before you answer this question, consider the daunting problem the Patriots have concerning Ty Law. Did the performance of the rest of the secondary, especially the backup safeties, give Belichick pause to reconsider any decision regarding Law and his huge cap hit for 2004? Has Law become even more important to the Patriots as they prepare for next season, not that he isn't already?

Now, what about the Panthers and their vaunted defense? What in the world did that dilapidated Patriot offensive line do, take extra vitamins? We're talking 481 yards of offense surrendered, and zero sacks of Tom Brady. The last time the Patriots scored 32 or more points was in November at Indianapolis. You mean to tell me that all Kris Jenkins was good for was a few offside penalties? Nice job, Mr. Hochstein.

Teams make adjustments, but this is beyond all that. It is one thing to adjust, but it is another thing to make the other team's strength look like the NFL's worst. It is further fascinating that both teams were able to do this to each other, and literally at the same time.

The game changed when Brady hit Deion Branch from five yards out for a touchdown to make it 7-0 Patriots late in the second half. Mike Vrabel came rushing in, hit Delhomme and stripped the ball from him. Richard Seymour recovered at the Panther 20, and the Patriots were the first team to score in Super Bowl XXXVIII. It wasn't the fumble that changed the game. It was what happened just after this touchdown.

The Patriots now led, 7-0, and Vinatieri's kickoff plus a penalty pinned Carolina back to their own 5-yard line. What most of Patriot Nation expected at this point was an all out assault on Delhomme, with a safety at best and a turnover at least upcoming. This is the precise moment in the game where you just knew that the Patriots would go for the kill.

Instead, the Patriots changed their defensive philosophy, and it nearly cost them the game. They went away from an aggressive and pressing defense to a softer zone defense, the reason being that they now had the lead and could now play to hold the Panthers to no worse than field goals. On third and five at the ten, Delhomme hit Ricky Proehl over the middle despite eight men in coverage. Then, Delhomme lofts a soft toss to Muhsin Muhammad along the left sideline for 23 yards. Law was defending and was guilty of illegal contact on the play.

Up until this drive, the Panthers had six previous offensive drives totaling minus-7 yards. This drive would cover a staggering 95 yards, the last 39 coming on another lob pass along the left sideline where Steve Smith outran Tyrone Poole and caught a perfectly thrown ball. In less than two minutes, the Panthers had covered nearly the entire field and tied the score.

Back came the Patriots. A 52-yard bomb to Branch (defended by Ricky Manning, he of the three picks against the Eagles) set up a five-yard scoring pass to David Givens. The passing duel was on. The third quarter would see a slight letup, but six of the final seven drives would end in scores for both teams combined.

The Panthers solved the Patriot defense largely because of the Patriots choosing to go away from attacking to more of a blanket zone. It allowed Delhomme to gain confidence, find a rhythm, and most important, find open receivers in zone seams. It also brought on some blown coverages which may be more of a "this game only" problem and not so much a deep seeded problem for next year.

On the 85-yard touchdown bomb from Delhomme to Muhammad, Law gave Muhammad a slight cushion, then let him go downfield to be picked up by Eugene Wilson. Someday Wilson will be able to defend this, but not in his rookie year. Muhammad had two steps on Wilson, who pulled his groin on the play. There was also a total collapse in coverage on Proehl's game-tying touchdown in the final minutes, but the problem here lies in backup safeties Chris Akins and Shawn Maier. Had Wilson been back there, perhaps things would have been different.

To sum it up succinctly, it's not too often that a quarterback completes under fifty percent of his passes yet winds up with a passer rating of 113.6. The long gains and three touchdown passes were what gave Delhomme the unusual line score.

Meanwhile, how did the Patriots make their hay against this vaunted Panther defense? Quite simply, it came down to smart gameplanning and possibly a group of Panthers who wilted under the weight of too much time on the field. At no time was the defensive line a factor. The linebackers made some plays, with linebacker Will Witherspoon in particular making some stuffs in short yardage situations.

One thing the Patriots learned quickly is that Julius Peppers can be run on. They ran at him all night, and the man known primarily for his pass rushing was no match for Tom Ashworth and anyone else who helped open holes off right tackle. Nobody expected Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk to have decent games, but Smith managed 83 yards rushing and Faulk had a seven-yard average on six carries.

But most of all, Brady was never sacked. What little pressure he got, he was able to sidestep pretty easily. Charlie Weis called for lots of roll right plays (away from Jenkins and Mike Rucker), which Brady was able to make lots of completions off of. Given this time to throw, receivers were often open amidst the porous and slightly overrated Panther secondary. This was an invaluable commodity when the Patriots were trailing 22-21 in the fourth quarter, and when the game was tied at 29 just prior to Vinatieri's winning field goal.

If the Panthers were exhausted, how about the Patriots? That is not a likely proposition. One might figure that the Patriots expended so much energy in holding the Panthers to minus yardage in the first 27 minutes of the game that they were not able to maintain that energy over sixty minutes, and thus became susceptible to Delhomme and his incredible touch passing game. But the fact remains that the Patriots decided to manage the game differently once ahead, 7-0, and it gave Delhomme momentum that he would never relinquish.

Now, do you still wish the Patriots had pulled off a shutout? We already perhaps know your answer. The Patriots managed the game to win by three, and by gum, they did. Who needs a shutout when there's a victory parade on Tuesday?

You're right. The Patriots still won. Vince is back in New England. The Ty Law Dance Show returns to City Hall. Enjoy, Patriot Nation.


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