HOUSTON -- During the regular season the New England Patriots carved out a 7-1 mark versus opponents against whom the Carolina Panthers registered a 4-4 record during the regular season. But players and coaches from those "common opponent" franchises suggested this week that, the regular-season disparity aside, these are two uncommonly resilient and also mentally girded teams set to face off in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
When the Patriots and Panthers wake up in the morning, they might not see the exact same reflection staring back at them in the bathroom mirror, but the image in the glass is, under the shaving cream, at least a reasonable facsimile, opponents said.
"Two teams that are (steeped) in fundamentals, who do all the little things well, and who won't beat themselves," said Houston quarterback David Carr, who led the Texans to a 14-10 upset victory over the Panthers on Nov. 2, but was sidelined when Houston took the Pats into overtime three weeks later, before succumbing 23-20. "There's no quit in either of them."
Added Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney, whose team lost to both Super Bowl entries: "One of them is going to have to play really, really well, maybe the best game they have played all year, to get some kind of an edge."
That said, most of the common opponents acknowledge the experience New England gleaned from its Super Bowl XXXVI appearance two seasons ago provides the Patriots a slight edge, and that Bill Belichick's club will win a closely-contested game. ESPN.com surveyed 27 players, head coaches, assistant coaches and club officials from the eight "common opponent" franchises this week, and 19 chose the Patriots to emerge Sunday night as Super Bowl champions.
There were three opponents -- Jacksonville, Indianapolis and the New York Giants -- who each lost to both of the Super Bowl XXXVIII contestants. Counting the playoffs, where New England's record against common opponents swells to 9-1 and Carolina improved to 6-4, the Panthers added two victories against teams they had lost to in regular-season play, but that New England had defeated.
The survey of players and coaches from the common opponents includes at least two respondents from each club.
Not surprisingly, there were plenty of disclaimers. Never was the if word tossed out so often, as players and coaches veered and vacillated before offering up an opinion.
More important than prognostications, though, was the pool's collective insights into how the two Super Bowl finalists might be exploited. And, as well, what will be the decisive element that most determines the outcome.
"He's a different player on the field than he is on tape," said one Giants defender, whose team lost to the Panthers 37-24 in the regular-season finale, a game in which Delhomme threw for 273 yards. "Seeing him on tape, you think his arm isn't that strong, that you can make a move on the ball because it takes so long to get there sometimes. But then you get into the game and he's finding a way to make plays. He's a resourceful guy. And you can see the heart (with which) he plays. I really think, too, that's reflected in the whole team. The Patriots are good but, I'm telling you, they might have to drive a wooden stake into Carolina, because that team just isn't going to roll over and die."
At some point on Sunday night, though, it's likely that heart and emotion and all of the other intangibles will be superceded by talent, schemes and playmaking ability. And in discussing the Super Bowl teams with coaches and players who faced them this year, the more significant pursuit was eliciting X-and-O opinions about how the Patriots and the Panthers could be defeated.
Most of the responses, understandably, were not for attribution. But a few respondents, like Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, offered for-the-record insights. His biggest point: Match the aggressiveness of the respective secondaries with toughness of your own and don't be rattled by the verbosity that each unit likes to use as a method of distraction and a tool of destruction.
"Both the (secondaries) like to get their hands on you, bump you as much as possible, and they also try to get inside your head," said Johnson, who combined for eight catches, 101 yards and one touchdown in games against the Pats and Panthers. "You can't back down. As soon as those guys see any (hint) of fear, they'll turn it up a notch."
Freeney added that the two offenses in Super Bowl XXXVIII can't afford to abandon the run, even if it is unproductive early on. In their 32 combined regular-season games, New England and Carolina held opponents to under 100 yards on 19 occasions, and both seek to render an opponent one-dimensional.
"You can't get frustrated," Freeney said. "They've got to stick to the plan, man."
So just what should be the plan for winning Super Bowl XXXVIII. Here are the synopses of the comments, opinions and insights offered by common opponents:
Beating the Patriots
Many agreed that, against the New England defense, the most important facet comes even before the ball is snapped. "Recognition skills are really crucial against them," said Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey, whose team was the last to defeat the Pats. "They don't substitute that often and they can play a lot of fronts with the same personnel on the field. You have to get a read on what they're doing, who's coming from where."
There was strong sentiment that, when the Patriots are in a front using just two traditional defensive linemen, you should run outside the tackle even more than usual. That seems to go against conventional wisdom, but one Indianapolis offensive player suggested his club had some success with "stretch"-type plays.
In the passing game, two quarterbacks noted that you don't want to throw the ball in front of New England cornerback Ty Law, who prefers coming forward rather than having to turn and run deep with a receiver. "He loves to move up and jump the short routes," said one wide receiver. Although fellow corner Tyrone Poole had six interceptions during the regular season, some respondents felt he could be worked on, although most agreed it is a mistake to assume his lack of size can be exploited.
The key to slowing the New England offense, it was agreed, was to somehow disrupt Tom Brady's timing. Easier said than done, of course, but one defensive line coach said that sacks weren't nearly as important as general pressure that might preclude Brady from getting the ball out early. Brady is "all about rhythm," said one Dallas defender.
"Just do whatever you can to make him hold the ball a second longer than he wants to and that gives you a chance," he said. "And, I know that this comes straight from the 'Defense 101' manual, but keep your hands up. He throws so many routes inside the numbers, and the ball is out so fast, you have to distract him. If you can make the guy double-clutch, that's another half-count for your rushers to maybe get to him. Let him get in that groove, where he's comfortable and completing all those seven- and eight-yarders, and it's over."
Beating the Panthers
Not surprisingly, the overwhelming No. 1 priority is to slow the Carolina running game. And if you can do so without committing eight "in the box," most respondents said, that is a preference, since the Panthers wide receivers have been making so many big plays up the seam over the season's second half. The Panthers run a lot of "wham"-style blocking and their line is probably more mobile than people think. Defenders must also be aware that wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad is one of the league's best outside and downfield blockers and defensive backs have to stay disengaged from him.
"You just need to get a lot of people to the ball and make sure that (Stephen) Davis isn't out there breaking tackles and turning a simple five-yard run into 25 yards," said Giants linebacker Dhani Jones. "Gap discipline is huge. Davis and (DeShaun) Foster both have terrific vision and feel. They'll go to the backside if that's where the void is and, if you abandon that gap, they're suddenly into your secondary."
In the secondary, it appears critical to play over the top of big-play threat Steve Smith and underneath Muhammad, a very good possession receiver who seems to now be over the stretch of dropped passes that affected him early in the season. Smith is terrific on double-move routes and also on adding yards after the catch. "But it looks a little bit like (Delhomme) is getting tunnel vision for him on third-and-long, so maybe you can bait Jake into throwing a pick," said a veteran safety.
On the offensive side, most respondents suggested the Carolina secondary, even with the improvement demonstrated by the insertion of cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. into the No. 1 unit, remains suspect. There was some feeling that corner Reggie Howard, very good in run support but not as strong in coverage, can be beat. And a few respondents felt that free safety Deon Grant should be an early target.
Of course, the biggest chore for the New England offense will be trying to handle a front four many feel is the NFL's best. One Colts player felt it was possible to run at strong-side end Julius Peppers, to lure him inside with misdirection and then come back outside. Nearly everyone agreed that two of the Panthers linebackers, Dan Morgan in the middle and Will Witherspoon at the weak-side position, have superior quickness. But strong-side starter Greg Favors, says the consensus, could be a weak link.
As is the case when facing the New England front, recognition skills will be essential against the Panthers, because they are more creative than generally credited. A common perception is that Carolina gets all its pressure from the front four. Not so. The Panthers have a very high blitz ratio and will come from some odd angles, frequently sending a cornerback or blitzing out of the slot on third down.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.