Pats primed for second title
The running of Antowain Smith and defense of Rodney Harrison are among the reasons New England will beat Carolina.
HOUSTON -- Rarely has a Super Bowl coach overshadowed his team the way that New England's Bill Belichick has eclipsed the Patriots player profile this week. But even in a week when Belichick seemed to gain further stature, with some suggesting that a second Super Bowl triumph in three seasons could catapult him to another level, the Pats coach has been quick to remind everyone that players will determine the outcome on Sunday night.
"Once we kick it off," he said, "it's their game."
With that in mind, here are five on-the-field reasons the New England players will win Super Bowl XXXVIII:
2. Make no mistake, the Panthers own the superior running game, statistically ranking seventh during the regular season, while the Patriots were No. 27. In fact, Carolina star tailback Stephen Davis rushed for more yards (1,444) than the combined yardage (1,280) efforts of New England tailbacks Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. But the hard-running Smith has come up big in the playoffs before -- as evidenced by his 22-carry and 100-yard performance against Indianapolis in the AFC championship outing two weeks ago -- and the bet is that the seven-year veteran will do it again. Smith has a 4.2-yard career average in the postseason, nearly a half-yard better than his regular-season average. His average in two playoff games this year is 4.4 yards. We're going to step out on a limb and predict (yeah, OK, call us crazy) Smith will actually out-rush Davis on Sunday evening. Look for the Pats to use tight end Christian Fauria more as an in-line blocker, and for him to give some added inside leverage after coming in motion toward the play. At the No. 2 tailback position, DeShaun Foster of Carolina appears to have an edge over Faulk. But the running game is just one component for these tailbacks and, when the quarterbacks need to check down, Faulk is the guy you want catching the ball. He had 48 catches in 2003, more than Davis and Foster combined, and can make defenders miss in space. Carolina weak-side linebacker Will Witherspoon is very good in coverage, but matched up against Faulk out in the flat, we'll take the Pats mercurial back. Count on the relatively anonymous Faulk moving the chains five times, between running the ball and catching it, on Sunday evening.
3. Nose tackle Ted "Mount" Washington claimed he weighed in this week at about 365 pounds. By any man's math, that's one pound for every day of the year, right? Or, in the case of the Super Bowl, it represents a year's worth of tonnage all crammed together for one big day. Because the Pats aligned virtually the entire AFC championship game in a "nickel" look, the gargantuan Washington played only a handful of snaps versus the Colts two weeks ago, with New England using only two traditional "down" linemen inside. But with the strength of the Carolina rushing attack, and the "wham" action and nifty inside switches the Panthers use to create big creases for Davis and Foster, look for Washington's snap count to be dramatically increased. The Panthers count on getting a helmet on a helmet, but Washington typically commands double-team attention, which means Carolina is going to have to make some adjustments. Look for Washington to get 20-25 snaps, usually on first-and-10 Sunday, and look for him to be effective even if he doesn't register a single tackle. Washington simply collapses the middle, clogs up traffic like a rush-hour fender-bender, and permits the Pats linebackers to run free to the ball. If he is on the field, it usually means the versatile Richard Seymour is playing end in the 3-4, not his position of preference, but the one where some personnel people feel he is most effective. The presence of Washington on the field might also mean that linebacker Tedy Bruschi, coming off a leg injury, won't face as many bodies coming at him. The Carolina offensive line has been the best unit in the league over the last several weeks of the regular season and the playoffs. But they will be challenged by Washington and it isn't likely that just one blocker can handle him.
4. Strong safety Rodney Harrison, who appeared in Super Bowl XXIX as a rookie special teams player for the San Diego Chargers, has waited a long time for a return engagement. Now that it's here, the veteran safety isn't about to squander the opportunity to earn his first Super Bowl ring. No offense to cornerback Ty Law, who has been magnificent in the postseason, but Harrison is the key to the New England secondary. Stationed in the back of the two-safety "shell" the Pats generally play, particularly on early downs, he has everything in front of him. And even at age 31, the 10-year veteran still chases the ball with remarkable efficiency and economy of motion. Harrison is a better player coming forward but, since the Panthers figure to run early and try to establish Davis as the primary, pace-setting force in the game, that is to the safety's advantage. Put him down for double-digit tackles right now. His duties, however, won't stop with stuffing the running game. Because the Panthers throw so many routes up the seam, and quarterback Jake Delhomme really likes to gun the ball inside, it's imperative Harrison and rookie free safety Eugene Wilson play decent coverage, as well. During their 14-game winning streak, the Pats have 29 interceptions, at least one in every victory in the lengthy skein. The bet here is that the cagey Harrison, playing up to the moment he has thought about for a long time, helps keep the winning streak and the interception string alive.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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