Thursday, January 29
Updated: January 31, 2:41 PM ET
Super Bowl Viewer's Guide
By John Madden
As a former coach, one of the refreshing things about this Super Bowl is that it's about two teams. The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots are each built as a team and not around one superstar.
There have been skeptics who've spoken up with expectations of a boring Super Bowl because of the lack of superstars, but they don't know what they're talking about. These two teams worked hard and beat teams with superstar players to earn the right to play in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Their success should serve as a message to owners and general managers that winning teams are just that ... teams. That's what's needed to compete at the highest level, not one or two highly paid players. For further proof that a team doesn't need to be full of star players: There's only one offensive player that's been voted to the Pro Bowl playing in the Super Bowl.
Nowadays teams in the NFL get too carried away with superstars and trying to build around one player. In this age of parity, it's paramount that teams have a true core to be successful. There's such a fine line between teams that make the playoffs and teams that make the Super Bowl. When I broadcast the Panthers-Dallas Cowboy wild-card game, I said either team could make the Super Bowl. That's just how level the field is nowadays.
To win this game, the Panthers have to continue what they've done to get them to this point. They have to play ball control football and run the ball with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, while quarterback Jake Delhomme manages the game. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning told me before their wild card game that Delhomme has to understand that an incompletion on third down forces a punt and that's not the worst thing to happen. Since that talking to, he's done a very good job remembering that and has avoided hurting the team.
The Panthers have a solid offensive line, which leads them into a ball-control offense. But they aren't primarily a dink and dunk team they do throw the ball downfield to explosive receiver Steve Smith. Delhomme has a fairly strong arm and can get the ball downfield to utilize Smith's great speed. Smith and fellow receiver Muhsin Muhammad complement each other very well. Muhammad is a good possession receiver who allows Smith to go downfield more often. Muhammad can be counted on for those important third down conversions and has become an excellent blocker.
Defensively, the Panthers are all about the front four. When the playoffs started I felt like this was the best front four in football and they've proven me right. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins does a good job getting a push up the middle. He may not get any sacks because of quarterback Tom Brady's quick release, but Jenkins will stop him from stepping up in the pocket. Defensive end Julius Peppers has great speed off the end and provides a great edge rush.
The pressure that the line gives directly benefits the secondary. That's important against a team like the Patriots because they love to spread defenses out and shred them with short passes. The strength of the front four will allow the corners to press the receivers and take away those short passes and not stop the Pats from nickel and diming them.
On the other side of the ball, the key to the Patriots 14-game winning streak is jumping out to an early lead. They get a lead and force the opposition to play uphill against a good defense. Peyton Manning proved that's easier said than done. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is arguably the best at mixing up runs, passes, personnel, etc. They do as good a job using their personnel as anyone who's ever played the game. At some point in the game Brady has to make a play. He is going to have to hit someone deep to open up their offense.
Defensively the Patriots are doggone good! They do it by taking away things teams are comfortable doing. That's where the Panthers running game can become important, and running back Stephen Davis being 100 percent becomes important.
Going into the game the Patriots are going to have an elaborate scheme of things to confuse the offense. Over the years, I've seen them have anywhere from a two-man line to a six-man line, no linebackers to five linebackers, and four defensive backs to eight defensive backs. They'll do all sorts of things with their schemes and personnel that will just confuse the heck out of an offensive coordinator and quarterback. Chances are they've seen the elaborate schemes and personnel on film, but they still don't know what's going to be thrown at them. That creates a greater challenge for the opposition to figure everything out and make adjustments.
This Super Bowl matchup makes this the year of the team and with their 14 consecutive wins, the Pats are the best team.