- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- Two years ago, the Patriots were the Cinderella team and Tom Brady was the quarterback wearing the slipper. How times change. Now, the Patriots are the favorites, making their second Super Bowl trip in three years.
The Panthers are now the Patriots. Like Brady, a former sixth-round choice who garnered no respect until his first Super Bowl run, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme just wins games. Remember heading into that Super Bowl victory over the Rams how critics discounted Brady's unspectacular performances in late November and December. Well, Delhomme needed only 14 passes to beat the Eagles 14-3 in the NFC championship game to advance to the Super Bowl.
In fact, Delhomme needed only 43 completions in three games to advance the Panthers to the Super Bowl. Now, Brady goes in with the accolades. He's a perfect 5-0 in playoff games. He has ice in his veins during pressure situations.
Delhomme was the league's best fourth-quarter quarterback in 2003 and he's the new Brady.
Like the Patriots, the Panthers made the Super Bowl because of their defense. The Panthers might have the league's best front four and their cornerbacks are coming on at the right time to make plays and force turnovers.
Surely, the Patriots are the heavy favorites, but the Panthers love the role of being the underdogs. Just like the Patriots did in New Orleans.
Here's what to watch:
1. Coaching clinic: The coaching edge goes to Bill Belichick of the Patriots only because of experience. Since 2001, he's the league's winningest coach with a 39-14 record. He's 5-0 in playoff games for the Patriots and has a style of defense that is hard to figure out. Of course, John Fox of the Panthers can't be slighted too much. He coached the Giants defense in a Super Bowl and is 3-0 in playoff games with this team.
2. Close encounter: Expect a close game. The Panthers have a knack for getting opponents to play close ones. The Panthers were 9-3 during the regular season in games decided by eight points or fewer. Three-point games? They are 7-0. They've allowed only 36 points in their three playoff games this year. Fox's defense is peaking at the right time because his young secondary is playing its best and coming up with turnovers.
3. Brady's bunch: Tom Brady will be the main story at the Super Bowl. Is he the next Joe Montana? A victory over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII will put him among the elite quarterbacks even though he's only 26. Brady didn't have a great Super Bowl against the Rams until he got hot at the end and won the game. Still, being a two-time Super Bowl champion could vault him ahead of Peyton Manning and Steve McNair for next year's MVP voting. Brady is 34-12 as a starter and 5-0 in playoff games.
4. Laying down the Law: Patriots cornerback Ty Law will match up against the Panthers' best receiver, but will that be much of a factor? Often, the Panthers send only one receiver into routes because they use a lot of sets with two tight ends and two backs. There were several times in the victory over the Eagles that Steve Smith, who led the Panthers with 88 catches, wasn't on the field because Muhsin Muhammad is the better downfield blocker on running plays. Law will match up on Smith mostly, but will the Panthers even try to throw the ball?
5. Secondary line of defense: The Patriots have overhauled their secondary since last year and have stats similar to the Bucs of 2002, who were one of the toughest pass defenses to throw against. Belichick changed four of his top five in the secondary, bringing in cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and rookie Asante Samuel and safeties Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison. The overall quarterback rating against the Patriots has been 56.2 and opponents completed only 53.1 percent of their passes against the Pats. The Pats had 29 interceptions and allowed a league-low 11 touchdown passes. A year ago, the QB rating against the Patriots was 78.2 and New England allowed 23 touchdown passes.
6. Panthers secondary will be tested: The Panthers secondary may be the biggest surprise story of this postseason. Most of the corners are shorter than 5-10. Rookie Ricky Manning Jr. is emerging as a surprise star since entering the starting lineup only six games ago. He has four interceptions in the playoffs. The Panthers overall have allowed only 65 completions for just 674 yards. The Panthers have eight interceptions in three playoff games. The Patriots rely more on their short passing game than the run, so how well the Patriots can exploit the Panthers secondary could determine if they will win.
7. Hochstein in the spotlight: Guard Russ Hochstein could be an interesting Super Bowl story. He takes over for guard-center Damien Woody, who is out for the season with a torn medial collateral knee ligament. Hochstein matches up against big defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, but Fox may trying to stunt against Hochstein to cause confusion and get pressure on Brady.
8. Mount Washington: The presence of 370-pound defensive tackle Ted Washington could take away Stephen Davis' inside runs and make DeShaun Foster the most valuable back. Davis is a downhill runner who has great success running inside. Foster is quicker to the outside where he bounces a lot of his run. Washington is perhaps the league's best run-stopping defensive tackle, making you wonder why the Bears traded him to the Patriots.
9. Getting their kicks: If it comes down to a game-winning kick, either team can win. John Kasay has been involved in three of the Panthers' four overtime wins with his field goal ability. Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri is the game's best clutch kicker even though he's coming off a subpar season. Vinatieri has made 80.6 percent of his field goals and is eighth all-time in accuracy. He's had 15 game-winning kicks, including the one that won Super Bowl XXXVI.
10. What's new? Belichick will have plenty of time to prepare for the Panthers' rather simple offense. John Fox caused some confusion against the Eagles by using a Wishbone featuring two tight ends in the backfield and one back, Stephen Davis. Belichick will have extra time to decide whether to use more 3-4 or 4-3 and what kind of blitzes might be needed to get the Panthers out of their rhythm. Expect anything from him.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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