Points might be inviting
in well-matched teams

Jan 27, 2004 5:41 AM

So, can the upstart Panthers win? Well, the last two Super Bowl champions won as dogs, as Tampa Bay pummeled the Raiders 48-21 and New England shocked the Rams, 20-17, as a 14-point dog.

Both teams got here with outstanding defenses: New England ranks 7th in the NFL in total defense, Carolina ranks 8th. This explains the low total, too. The last two times a total was below 40 was three years ago (Ravens/Giants was 33) and in 1986 (37½ for the Patriots/Bears). Incidentally, both those Super Bowls ending up going OVER the total. Also, the championship games these teams just played both went UNDER.

Here’s a look at what to expect this weekend as America’s unofficial national holiday, the Super Bowl, kicks off.

What the Panthers want to do: It’s no secret what Carolina coach Jon Fox likes to do. He likes conservative offense with a strong ground game behind Stephen Davis (1,444 yards, 4.5 yds per carry) and DeShaun Foster. This is possible because of a great defensive front anchored by Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker (12 sacks) and Julius Peppers (7 sacks) that is tough on opposing offenses.

This formula may be dull, but it’s delivered an NFC title to Carolina in just the second season under Fox. All the more remarkable when you realize this team was 1-15 two years ago under George Seifert!

The ground game takes the pressure off quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has 19 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. However, Delhomme has shown remarkable cool under pressure this season, with a hat-tossing drive in the final minute that shocked Tampa Bay on November 9, and a 29-23 overtime win at St. Louis in the playoffs with a 69-yard TD pass to Steve Smith. In playoff games against Dallas and St. Louis, Delhomme passed for 273 and 290 yards!

However, it’s likely Coach Fox doesn’t want to ask Delhomme to try and put up those kind of numbers against a New England secondary that is playing in another zone. The last three playoff games (counting Super Bowl 36), Bill Belichick and the Patriots secondary has stymied three NFL MVP quarterbacks in Kurt Warner, Steve McNair and Peyton Manning. Fox doesn’t want to see early interceptions that might rattle Delhomme, who is playing in this first Super Bowl.

What the Patriots want to do: New England wins with a quick-strike passing offense behind quarterback Tom Brady and a ferocious defense that led the NFL in points allowed (14.9 per game). The Patriots were 4th in the NFL against the run and this will be a key match-up in an attempt to nullify the Panthers running game.

The Patriots don’t run the ball well (rated 27th) and will find the going tough against Carolina’s front line. So expect to see a lot of passing from Brady, especially early on. In playoff wins over Tennessee and Indianapolis, the Patriots came right out throwing the ball, getting 7-0 first quarter leads in both games within the first seven minutes.

Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and Brady (23 TDs, 12 INTs) have a quick-strike passing offense that uses multiple receivers and a short/medium range passing game that rarely goes conservative. As we’ve seen in the playoffs, they’re not afraid to go for it on fourth down, either. A key match-up to watch will be Carolina rookie cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr, against Patriots receivers Troy Brown, Deion Branch and speedy rookie Bethel Johnson. They will test the rookie defensive — will he be ready?

The surroundings will be familiar, too. Both the Patriots and the Panthers have already played a game in this stadium this season, though neither was impressive. Carolina lost 14-10 at Houston on November 2 as a 6-point favorite, and New England won 23-20 in overtime at Houston on November 23 as a 5½ point favorite.

Offensively, Carolina is ranked 16th (7th rushing, 18th passing), while New England is 17th (27th rushing, 9th passing). Carolina is 7-3 SU/6-4 ATS on the road outscoring opponents by a 20-17 average. The Patriots are 6-2 SU/5-2-1 ATS on the road where they’ve outscored opponents by a 22-21 average. This is the third straight road game for Carolina, and they’ve already shocked the favored Rams and Eagles. New England was 17-to-1 to win the Super Bowl back in August, while Carolina was 75-to-1.

Finally, the Patriots carry a 14-game win streak into this game, and are flirting with immortality as the last team to win that many in a row was the 1972 Dolphins. Despite that remarkable winning streak, they rarely blow teams out. The average margin of victory in those 14 games has been 9.2 points, with wins by 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6, 6 and 8 points!