- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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HOUSTON -- Defenses supposedly win championships. At least that appears to be the trend of the new millennium.
Since 1995, the only Super Bowl winner that wasn't among the top 11 ranked defenses in the regular season was the 2001 Patriots. But while the Patriots were No. 24 in overall defense that season, they were ranked No. 5 in scoring defense, giving up only 17 points per game.
Trying to figure a sure-fire formula in the NFL is impossible, but it's safe to say that a good defense gives a team a chance. But neither the Panthers nor the Patriots were dominant this season. The Patriots ranked seventh, the Panthers eighth in total defense. In 2003, there was no dominant defense, so the defensive coaches who managed games the best survived.
Bill Belichick and John Fox survived.
"I look at the offensive statistics in the red zone and the two teams at the bottom of the list are the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers," Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning said. "Maybe, everybody will be saying, 'Well, the red zone may not be as important as everybody thinks.' I think during the season, we were minus-5 in the take-away/give-away. But we've been plus-8 in the playoffs."
Super Bowl XXXVIII concludes a season in which parity is making this more of a coaches' league. Of the 256 games, 132 were decided by eight points or less. The Patriots were 8-1 in these close games. The Panthers were 9-3, 7-0 in three-point games. Including the playoffs, Bill Belichick outmaneuvered a league-best nine teams with winning records. The Panthers beat as many winning teams (three) during the regular season as they did in the playoffs (three).
Belichick versus Fox is a chess match. Though they share a background with Bill Parcells, Fox coaches more like Parcells than Belichick, who was Parcells' right hand man for decades.
"One thing I've learned under those two guys -- who are two of the greatest coaches in this game -- is that they have two different strengths," Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. "I think Bill Parcells' greatest strength is what I call button-pushing. He knows how to play the psyche of everyone in the organization. He knows what buttons to push. Bill Belichick is one of the most cerebral people I've ever seen, and his insight and foresight into the game are unbelievable. He's usually one step ahead of everyone else. Whether it's a personnel decision or a game decision, that's his strength."
Belichick's a master of finding weaknesses within an offense and exploiting them. For example, he instructed his cornerbacks to be physical with Colts' receivers to take away their effectiveness. The Patriots pressured Peyton Manning and hit him and forced him to make bad throws.
How does Belichick do this? He plays the brain game. His game plans call for flexibility from his players. His system requires players who love football and leave their ego outside the stadium. Even the most distant backup might be given a chance to play during a season. Rookie defensive tackle Dan Klecko can play on the line or at linebacker dropping into coverages, or he could spend weeks on the inactive list.
"When guys make this football team, they understand they are going to play some time during the season, and they don't know when," Pats outside linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Your job as a football player is to be ready to play. It might not be this week, but it's going to be some time. It might not just be on special teams but it could be expanded roles."
Vrabel plays a couple of different linebacker positions and will also line up as a pass-rushing defensive end. First-round choice Eugene Wilson was drafted as a cornerback, but Belichick made him a starting safety early in the season. The Patriots will switch from 3-4 to 4-3. Instead of wining and dining while recruiting free agents, Belichick might take them to the Ground Round restaurant for a burger.
"We are going to have 21 or 22 defensive players on the active roster," Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "Our flexibility depends on guys like Roman Phifer playing inside or outside linebacker, or Richard Seymour playing inside or outside on the defensive line. If we can get those kind of guys and have them play at a high level, then we can be flexible."
The Patriots are one of the few teams that "two-gap" along the defensive line. A two-gap lineman is responsible for the area on either side of the blocker he's opposing. Most defensive linemen hate that. They love to shoot the gap and disrupt the play. That's not the Patriots. Their linemen read and react. It's a cerebral game.
Where Belichick keeps you guessing, Fox is predictably efficient. His linemen shoot the gaps. His substitution patterns are simple. In that regard, Fox runs his team more like Parcells. He stresses simplicity and execution.
"The Panthers put out their starting 11 and they don't substitute very often because they know they have guys who know how to play," Weis said. "They don't take their front four out very much. They mix in a couple of guys to give them a little rest. They have their three linebackers on the field most of the time, and they leave them in a lot when they go nickel. They don't substitute a lot in the secondary either."
Unlike Parcells, Fox doesn't play mind games. He's a motivator who makes things fun for his players.
"You enjoy coming to work every day because Coach Fox makes work fun," Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan said. "He has a bunch of sayings, more sayings than any coach I've been around. And he's a funny guy. If you mess up, you are going to know about it, but if you are good, you are going to know about it."
Morgan and his teammates say their style of defense is similar to the style of the Ravens.
"Our defense allows you to fly around to the ball," Morgan said. "You put pressure on the quarterback. We run a lot of Cover 2 and we have different kinds of Cover 2, but we mix in enough stuff that you never know what we are gong to."
Which makes Super Bowl XXXVIII a guessing game. Belichick has the edge because he has the team coming from the better conference this season and has beaten more good teams. Opponents consider him a fox. Just don't count out the other fox (John). His players also believe in him.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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