By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 17, 2005

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's literally picking up right where they left off.

Patriots/Panthers
Close-Up
Where: Bank Of America Stadium
Charlotte, N.C.
When: Sunday 9/18/05
1:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 704, 930
2005 Team
Records:
Patriots 1-0
Panthers 0-1
Latest Line: Patriots by 3
This is largely thanks to Steve Smith, the Carolina wideout who is still fuming over Tyrone Poole allegedly spitting in his face in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Smith's vitriol is perhaps the most overt example of how passionate these two teams still are in wanting to win Sunday's matchup at Bank Of America Stadium. This rematch of two Super Bowls ago brings together much of the same cast on both sides, and a keen sense of carryover from that 32-29 Patriot win.

Even though the players, especially the Patriots, will say "two years ago doesn't matter", don't buy it. A preseason game last year at Charlotte was a grudge match until the starters finally left. Charlotte won the game, but only after the scrubs came in. There was a ton of hard hitting, at such a level which is unusual for a preseason game. Make no mistake, the Panthers knew they came within an eyelash of winning the whole thing two Februaries ago in Houston, and to those who remain, it still hurts.

For two teams who have only met in the regular season twice since 1995, and once in the playoffs, it's rare that these teams know each other so well. Bill Belichick will have had ten days to prepare for John Fox's squad, which will help the Patriots even more than the familiarity factor will. And Fox is no coaching slouch either, as his Panther team put up a terrific fight in Super Bowl XXXVIII, battling the Patriots down to the final play and being part of one of the best Super Bowls in history.

But there is some truth to the parable that says "two years ago doesn't matter". To some extent, that much is very true. There are some factors going into this contest which won't draw any carryover from Super Bowl XXXVIII. For the Patriots, they now have a premier running back in Corey Dillon; for the Panthers, Kris Jenkins won't play as he went down for the season last week against New Orleans with a torn ACL.

That said, here are some of the key factors and matchups for Sunday's battle.

Everyone is worried about Julius Peppers, and how much he will harass Tom Brady on Sunday. People are forgetting that Belichick found just the right way to deal with Peppers in Houston two years ago: Run right at him. Both Tom Ashworth and Daniel Graham will be back, and now that the Patriots have Dillon, the Patriots can attack Peppers with even more firepower. Graham will need to help Ashworth with blocking Peppers, but the fact remains that Peppers is a far inferior run defender and running Dillon right at him is a matchup plus for the Patriots.

Another strategy that helped the Patriots greatly was rolling Brady out of the pocket. The Patriots had plays where Brady rolled right to keep away from Mike Rucker (the defensive end opposite Peppers), and left to keep away from Peppers. Both formations resulted in key long gains for the Patriots. Not having Jenkins in the middle will help, but Brady cannot remain in the pocket very long against the outstanding defensive ends of the Panthers.

One thing we have yet to hear from is locker room fodder from cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. Manning shot off his mouth after stellar performances against the Rams and Eagles in the games leading up to Super Bowl XXXVIII, then went out and played poorly in the big game. Manning may have done a lot of growing up since then, and is projected by many people to go to the Pro Bowl. Chris Gamble came on last year and contributed six picks, and the Panthers also picked up Ken Lucas from Seattle in the offseason. This is a much better secondary the Patriots will be facing. So, if the wideouts are shut down, then what?

Look for Tom Brady's go-to guy to be Benjamin Watson. What the Patriots might try and do, if flooding the secondary does not work, is to run two tight end packages and let Graham concentrate on helping out Ashworth. That means that Watson will be lined up on Rucker's side of the field. Carolina has two outstanding linebackers in Will Witherspoon and Dan Morgan; what Watson will need to do is to use his speed and get into areas where defensive backs will need to cover him. If he can do that and gain at least a height (if not speed) advantage, he could turn out to be the big play guy for the Patriots. This would also help loosen things up for Dillon to provide an alternate source of offense.

As for Smith and his vendetta against Poole, nothing may come of it. Reports are that Poole may not even play in the game. What will hurt Smith is the absence of Muhsin Muhammad, who has left Carolina for the Windy City. Keary Colbert should draw the start opposite Smith. What the Patriots will likely do, especially given that Poole was burned last Thursday by Randy Moss for a long touchdown pass, is play a taut cover two with safety help on Smith at all times. With no tight end to be afraid of, and without any other legitimate receiving threat except perhaps for Ricky Proehl, if the Patriots can get away with Eugene Wilson double-covering Smith with a cornerback, the Patriots should be okay here.

Actually, the biggest defensive worry will not be so much containing Smith and Jake Delhomme as it will be to stop the run. Both Stephen Davis and DeShawn Foster return, providing their own unique one-two punch. The Patriots shut this bunch down in Super Bowl XXXVIII and dared Delhomme to beat them. Delhomme almost did just that, and Foster did rip off a 33-yard touchdown run. The Patriots might not win the game if Davis and Foster cannot be effectively contained. If the Patriots play a 4-3, don't be surprised if Rodney Harrison will be needed to come up to the box and help out.

Finally, there is Carolina's state of mind right now. Last week, they had a New Orleans team reeling from the devastation of their city come in and win in their house, 23-20. Carolina will fight to the death to avoid going 0-2 with both losses coming at home. The Saints rose up and played an inspired game last week; though the Patriots never lack for inspiration, the Panthers will be frothing at the mouth to get at the Patriots. Revenge from Super Bowl XXXVIII only makes things that much tougher for the two-time champs.

The last time the Patriots came here, they clinched the division title in 2001 against a 1-14 Panther team. This Panther team has morphed into a bitter interconference rival. The Panthers will likely put up a tougher fight than their divisional rivals will. This will be a tough game for the Patriots, who will literally need to play a perfect game to come out winners.

So, unless some Panther shoots off his mouth and swings the emotional pendulum back to the Patriots, things will get nasty on Sunday. If you thought Super Bowl XXXVIII was a physical game, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Come on, Ricky Jr. Say that the Patriots aren't really that good, now or then. How many times are you going to pick off Brady?


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