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Matchups Foretell Super Day For Patriots

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Jan 30, 2004 at 5:00am ET

HOUSTON - Let us begin by paraphrasing Jimmy Morris (played by actor Dennis Quaid) in the movie The Rookie:

Gentlemen, you have won fourteen games in a row. No other team in Patriot history has won fourteen games in a row. But gentlemen…we need fifteen. Any questions?

What: Super Bowl XXXVIII
Where: Reliant Stadium
Houston, Texas
When: Sunday 2/1/04
6:18 PM EST
Television: CBS
WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
2003 Team Records: Patriots 16-2
Panthers 14-5
Latest Line: Patriots by 7
That pretty much bottom-lines things Sunday night at Reliant Stadium. At 5:18 PM local time, either John Kasay or Adam Vinatieri will kick off Super Bowl XXXVIII (assuming referee Ed Hochuli doesn't mess up the coin flip), and things then get real simple. It's the mother of all must-win games, and the franchise legacies of both the Patriots and the Panthers will be greatly changed by the outcome, mostly affecting which side wins.

If the Panthers win, they join the "club" of NFL teams who have won at least one of these things. Jerry Richardson's "champion in ten years" plan will have come true with one year to spare, and a new region of the country will be world champion. They will no longer be an NFL afterthought outside of their fan base. They will gain a newfound perception in the NFL community, and nobody will look at the Panthers the same way ever again.

Which pretty much sounds like the 2001 Patriots.

The 2003 Patriots have quite a different agenda on their docket. They are perceived presently as the top team in the entire league. They are riding a 14-game win streak, counting the postseason. They are favoured in a Super Bowl for the first time in team history (still holding steady at seven points). They are going into this game with the entire nation pretty much figuring the Patriots to win, and rooting for Carolina because everyone loves an underdog.

But most important, the Patriots stand to gain entry into a more exclusive club. They are looking for their second Super Bowl win. They are looking to complete the best run of victories in the NFL in thirty-one years. They are looking to place both their head coach and quarterback in high pantheons of NFL lore. In short, the Patriots will take a commanding lead in the "Team of the 2000s" poll, and with it about a thousand times more prestige than they got two years ago in New Orleans.

For one of these teams, they will leave Houston with a sad and empty feeling. Some scribe asked this question: "For whichever team that loses, will it automatically stamp this season as a failure?" In this case, the Panthers have far more room for error than the Patriots do, and can therefore be reasonably expected to play looser than the Patriots.

One can hypothesize all they want, but in this case, if anyone expects the Patriots to come out more afraid of losing than the Panthers, let them watch poker on ESPN instead of the big game. The Patriots are two years removed from winning one of these big games, and this experience is but one key ingredient which should bring the Patriots victory on Sunday night.

The game figures to be tough, and Carolina will present as big a challenge to the Patriots as Bill Belichick has told his players they will. But barring a bad day of turnovers and injuries, the Patriots should make Sunday night an evening for the ages in New England. Tough as they may play, Carolina likely won't impose their will nor will they take the game to the Patriots.

Position-by-position, the matchups generally look pretty good for the boys in navy blue.

Quarterback This has been a nice postseason for Jake Delhomme. But the Panther offense is predicated upon the ground game. Simply stated, the stage is set for Tom Brady to ascend to the next level, and for everyone who thinks he is the second coming of Joe Montana to actually believe what they are saying - and seeing. Brady simply won't mismanage this game, and that will be a weapon the Panthers won't be able to match. Edge - Patriots.

Running back Hometown lad Antowain Smith, fattened up thanks to his momma's home cooking, would love to be the game MVP Brady thinks he will be. Many experts think that Smith won't be able to dent the interior line of the Panthers, and that the speedier Kevin Faulk is a better weapon. Neither of these guys can match the power of Stephen Davis and the speed of DeShawn Foster. If the Panthers do break through and win, one of these guys will be the game MVP. Edge - Panthers.

Receivers Depth and coaching are the keys here. In addition to Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, former 2001 Ram Ricky Proehl will be out there, and he could hurt the Patriots as long as he can stay clear of Antwan Harris. The Patriots have tons of speed in Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson, and sure hands in Troy Brown and David Givens. The key here is that the Panther wideouts will have a tougher time dealing with the Patriot secondary than the Patriot receivers will have with the Panther DBs. Tight ends are pretty much of a push. Edge - Patriots.

Offensive line The Patriots would love to have Damien Woody back. And Mike Compton, for that matter. Two guys who helped do it in New Orleans won't be there to do it in Houston. The situation with Russ Hochstein is a genuine concern, but the Patriot coaching should find a way to minimize the matchup deficit. In Todd Steussie, Kevin Donnalley and Jeff Mitchell, the Panthers have a veteran core to their line which will be key in trying to open up holes for Davis. Edge - Panthers.

Defensive line Here's your ballgame right here. The Patriots have three guys who can get the job done. The Panthers have four guys who might be the best in the business. Whichever line wins this battle, their team likely wins the game. In this case, brains beats brawn and Romeo Crennel finds a way for his guys to do better. Edge - Patriots.

Linebackers Dan Morgan needs to be whipped for shooting off his big mouth. At least Brentson Buckner has shown some restraint. The Patriot corps, with or without Tedy Bruschi at full speed, should outplay their Carolina counterparts. Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest will be going after Delhomme all night long. Bruschi and Phifer (and likely Ted Johnson) will focus on stopping Davis. Edge - Patriots.

Secondary Ricky Manning will soon learn that Quincy Carter, Marc Bulger and Donovan McNabb are a lot easier marks than Brady. The Panther unit figures to play well, but if Brady gets some time to throw, they will face their toughest test of the postseason. Mindful of Super Bowl XXIX, Rodney Harrison will be out to blast anyone in his path. Ty Law will challenge Brady or Smith for game MVP honors, and cement that $9 million payday he assumes the Patriots are ready to pay him next year. Edge - Patriots.

Special Teams Kasay is as strong as Vinatieri is clutch, and Kasay isn't a slouch in the clutch department either. Return specialists are close with Johnson and He Hate Me running back kickoffs, and Brown and Smith on punts. The difference here will be in the punting, where former Panther punter Ken Walter won't be able to carry Todd Sauerbrun's jock. Edge - Panthers.

Coaching John Fox is the next up and coming "great coach" in this league. There is no question that his Panthers will be ready to play on Sunday. But he's about to get a lesson from the master, and this may be a case where you can hit a 95 mph fastball but can't touch one at 100 mph. Edge - Patriots.

Here are the five keys to victory for the Patriots:

The Patriots cannot allow the Panther defensive line to take over the game. This element is the best chance the Panthers have to upset the Patriots, and is the main reason why nobody in Patriot Nation should rest easy until the game is over. The Patriots will have to do it with a smart game plan from Charlie Weis, and the tutelage of line coach Dante Scarnecchia, the only Patriot common to all four Super Bowls. Screens, quick hitters and perhaps some draw plays to Smith might help loosen things up a bit. But there is no question that the Panther defensive line is the strongest element on their club, and it will be up to Patriot coaching to make sure that this is a battle the Patriots will win.

The Patriots, like in Super Bowl XXXVI, can and must win the turnover battle. The Patriot defense will likely induce some mistakes from Delhomme. What Brady cannot do is to force bad throws. Faulk must hold on to the football, as fumbling remains his Achilles heel. In a tight defensive struggle, turnovers will invariably decide the contest.

The Patriot secondary needs to approach the Panther receivers in exactly the same way they did with Indianapolis' two weeks ago and St. Louis' two years ago. They need to disrupt their timing, interrupt their patterns, and lay the lumber where the opportunity presents itself. One good stick rendered Torry Holt completely useless two years ago. Brandon Stokely was similarly treated two weeks ago. Smith will be a prime target in this case, as he is the speediest receiver of all the Panthers.

The Patriots cannot allow the Panthers to control the ball on offense for long periods of time. Third down stops are essential. Ted Washington has to have a huge game in order for the linebackers to do their thing with Davis. Put Delhomme consistently in third and long, and the Patriot defenders will have a happy evening.

Finally, the Patriots have to continue to listen to Belichick and let him lead the way. There is practically no way Fox will outcoach him. The players thus far have stayed away from controversial remarks and brushes with the law. The Panthers have only avoided the latter. Belichick will continue to be the ace in the hole he has always been, just like he was in New Orleans, just like he has been all year long. The Patriots will always be winners as long as they continue to believe in their coach and do things his way.

The interminable two-week wait is almost over. Outside of possibly the coaches, everyone wants the Patriots and Panthers to get down to business, and to do so right now.

Odds are that the boys from the nor'east will be the ones celebrating. Just don't break out the bubbly until 0:00 remains on the clock and your faves actually did outscore Carolina. Hunker down and get ready for a super game and a super battle.

And if it's the Patriots, a super party afterwards.

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