Patriots looking to establish place in history
After 20 weeks of football, it comes down to the Panthers and Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
HOUSTON -- In Super Bowl XXXVIII, take the under. In other words, don't expect more than 38 points in the 38th anniversary of this postseason classic.
Neither team is an offensive scoring machine. Even though the Patriots work a short passing game, spreading three, four or five receivers across the field, they have produced only 32 offensive touchdowns, meaning you can count on them for 14 points a game on offense. Kicker Adam Vinatieri had 34 field-goal attempts and made 25. Considering that he is a clutch kicker, Vinatieri can be counted on for six points.
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The Panthers have some of the weirdest offensive stats in football. Even though they ran the ball 52 percent of the time, they don't score rushing touchdowns as often as you would think. They had only nine rushing touchdowns. Offensively, they had only 28, less than two offensive touchdown drives a game. John Kasay, despite a game against the Eagles in which he missed three field goals, made 32 of 38 field goals. He can be counted on for six points, but their offense can't guarantee 14 points from touchdowns, so they would be expected to score less than 20.
The big swing in Super Bowl XXXVIII is in the secondaries, and that is where everything favors the Patriots. Except for rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., the Panthers don't have the true ballhawk to create the turnovers. They had only 16 interceptions during the season, and no player had more than three. Cornerback Reggie Howard isn't really a playmaker. Safety Mike Minter rushes a decent amount so he doesn't make as many plays in coverage, and fellow safety Deon Grant is also more of a phyiscal player.
On the other side, the Patriots' secondary seems like it gets its hands on the ball more than the Patriots' running backs. Cornerback Ty Law had six interceptions and a touchdown during the regular season and three more during the playoffs. Tyrone Poole had six interceptions. Free safety Eugene Wilson had four. Safety Rodney Harrison had three interceptions and added two more during the playoffs. Even linebacker Tedy Bruschi jumped in by returning two interceptions for touchdowns.
As a team, the Patriots had 29 interceptions and five touchdown returns. They almost expect to get points on defense and let Tom Brady play his normal, smart game.
Of course, you can't intercept what is not in the air, and that goes into the ultimate strategy of this game. Bill Belichick is the master of taking away teams' offensive weapons. John Fox is becoming a master at making an opponent play a physical style of smash-mouth football.
What people tend to forget is that the Patriots play varied styles of games. They can be high-scoring when needed. They got into shootouts with Indianapolis and Tennessee and won games in which each team scored in the 30s. Or they can win the low-scoring games. They beat Cleveland, 9-3. They beat the Giants, 17-6. They had three shutouts.
It's so rare that the Panthers can get a three-touchdown offensive game, so you don't expect them to score 23 points. They had only five games in which they scored more than 23. But proving that they can rise to the occasion, they had two of those games in the playoffs in beating the Cowboys and Rams.
Can Belichick force Fox into throwing the football?
"You have to tackle these guys," Harrison said of Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. "These guys, they want to bounce off your tackles. You can't just hit these guys. They are big. They are agile. That's what they want you to do. But we are a good tackling team, and we don't miss a lot of tackles. We get a lot of guys at the ball. We'll get to the ball."
Harrison is leery of the strategies coming from Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
"You never know with this coordinator," Harrison said. "He'll come out and might run on the ball on third-and-11. You just have to be prepared for him to run. He might go in three-receiver sets or stay in regular formations. You just don't know."
For the Panthers to win, though, they have to come up with big plays in the passing game. That shouldn't happen on the run. The longest run against the Patriots this year is 23 yards. A big run won't break the Patriots. Three or four big pass plays will.
"I think Carolina has a balanced offense," Belichick said. "They have a strong running game. They're well coached with Dan Henning, who I've coached with and against for the last decade. They have good backs that can run hard. They have good lead backs with tight ends. The backs are productive and they're efficient.
"But in the passing game, this has been a big passing game all year with the decision-making that Jake Delhomme has, the ability to throw the ball down the field. They are among the league leaders in big plays. A lot of them are catch-and-run plays where they get open underneath and make people miss and go for the long yardage."
That Belichick answer may give a clue as to how he is going to defense the Panthers. He may try to bait Delhomme into thinking Harrison is coming to the line of scrimmage as the eighth defender and then drop two back to keep an extra person in coverage.
The Panthers had 46 passing plays during the regular season in which they gained 20 or more yards. They tore up the Cowboys with four big plays, three between 32 and 70 yards. They had six against the Rams. The Eagles played things tighter and limited them to 21- and 24-yard gains, but the 24-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad came from a formation in which he was the lone wide receiver.
"We want to be able to develop a running game and make you commit extra people to that running game," Fox said.
The style of football goes back to Fox's roots with this organization. It started in 2002 with a tough, physical training camp. It continued with the pound-it-out style.
"I've always believed in football conditioning," Fox said. "I'm not necessarily just talking about physical conditioning, but the blocking and tackling and the hitting shape you have to get in to play. A lot of modern football players are kind of straying away from that. We probably had the most grueling camp in recent history anyway. We became a very mentally tough, physically tough, football-conditioned football team. We started the season last year going 3-0 and we came out this year at 5-0."
But the Patriots are well-conditioned hitters, too. They are the better tackling team. And they have won 14 consecutive games.
Their goal is to notch their 10th win against a winning team this season and start to establish a place in history.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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