Pats on verge of another crown

When the smoke clears, the Patriots will hoist the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champs on Feb. 1.

Updated: January 17, 2004, 3:33 PM ET
By Joe Theismann | Special to ESPN.com

Which of these four teams will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 1?

Tom Brady
Brady
I said the Patriots at midseason and I'm sticking with my pick. The Pats are the best team in football. They play well in every facet of the game whether it's offense, defense or special teams and they do whatever it takes to win.

The Patriots offense isn't the flashiest or most exciting in the NFL, but it seems that quarterback Tom Brady leads the team to victory every week. He does a marvelous job marshalling the weapons on his offense and using them to his advantage. Brady manages the clock well with the short-passing game, but will throw deep when the opportunity presents itself. The only weakness this team has offensively is the lack of a powerful running game, but the Pats short-passing game more than makes up for it.

Defensively, there are almost no flaws for opposing teams to latch on to. The Pats are a smart, veteran team that's coached by one of the best defensive coaching staffs in the NFL. Coach Bill Belichick's staff does a great job imparting the knowledge learned from film to the team and changing their defensive scheme to frustrate opposing offenses. I can't remember a defense that had the ability to switch up schemes and formations so easily during the week before a game. It's a testament to the greatness of the defense and the staff.

This Patriots may not be a team of destiny, but they will be holding the Lombardi Trophy again at the end of the season.

Friday, Jan. 16

What do the Colts have to accomplish that they didn't in Week 13 against the Pats?

Tony Dungy
Dungy
The Colts defense simply must play better. The Colts allowed 38 points to the Pats in Week 13 in a game that the Colts would've won if they could've stopped someone. There are two keys to this game for the Colts defense. One is stopping the short-passing route. The Pats are excellent at maintaining a "running game" through the air. They run very shallow crossing routes that get them five or six yards per play and keep the clock running. The Colts have to use the linebackers to disrupt the receivers' timing by getting in their way when they come through and also by knocking the stuffing out of them when they catch the ball. Coach Tony Dungy's defense has to see how many big hits those receivers are going to take before they start hearing footsteps and start making mistakes.

Also, the Colts have to maintain pressure on Tom Brady. He is a surgeon on opposing defenses when given time and will walk his team down the field in a 15 play drive that keeps Peyton Manning off the field. To stop this from happening, the Colts front four has to stay in his face. I'd also mix things up a little bit by sending a blitz up the middle to force Brady outside of the pocket. He's not a fast runner and can be caught by the speedy Colts defensive linemen.

Thursday, Jan. 15

Does McNabb have to repeat his outstanding performance from Sunday for the Eagles to win?

Donovan McNabb
McNabb
Yes he will because he's the Eagles lone consistent playmaker. For the Eagles to win, they need a 275-yard passing day combined with 75 or 80 rushing yards. There aren't many quarterbacks who have the ability to limit an effective rush with their legs, but Donovan McNabb is one of them. The Eagles coaching staff should take advantage by running a few naked bootlegs early in the game to keep the defense guessing. It's very important that the Panthers defensive linemen aren't just pinning their ears back and rushing the quarterback against an Eagles offensive line that gave up eight sacks to the Packers.

McNabb needs as much time as possible to throw the ball because his wide receivers lack breakaway speed. Receivers Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash don't have the separation speed necessary to take over games. They need time to run their routes and make the catch. If McNabb can get the time to make those plays, then the Eagles will be in excellent shape.

Wednesday, Jan. 14

How do the Patriots go about cooling off Manning and the Colts offense?

Marvin Harrison
Harrison
For the Patriots to be successful, they need to take away wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Harrison is the key to the Colts' offense and stopping him is paramount to victory for the Pats' defense. The Patriots should keep a safety on his side of the field and double team him all day no matter where he lines up. The Colts will probably try to move him around quite a bit and the Pats have to adjust accordingly because he can't be allowed to break a big play. Right now, Peyton Manning's secondary receivers are playing well, but the Pats should make those receivers beat them -- not Harrison.

Also, the Patriots have to keep pressure in Manning's face. I don't believe it's possible with just the defensive line, so I'd blitz as much as possible. I'd mix up the blitz packages by occasionally sending corners, but mostly I'd blitz with linebackers. The key to blitzing Manning is to come up the middle to force him out of the pocket. He loves staying in the pocket and surveying the defense, so blitzes have to keep him moving side to side to be effective. If he's blitzed from the edges, he'll just step up in the pocket and take advantage.

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi is probably the best fit on the Pats to be the blitzer. He's fast and capable of hitting the right gap to get to the quarterback unfettered. He also is smart enough to occasionally confuse Manning by dropping back into coverage and disrupting the timing of Manning's receivers.

Tuesday, Jan. 13

What do the Panthers have to achieve that they couldn't in Week 13 against the Eagles?
This is a more confident offensive team now. I believe the way they've won the past few weeks has helped a great deal because they realize they can win any type of game. They can win blowouts, overtime games and win on the road.

Also, the Panthers have found their passing game. After a season in which quarterback Jake Delhomme and his receiving corps struggled, they've played masterfully in the playoffs. Through two games, Delhomme has thrown for 563 yards and two touchdowns with only one interception. That success is due in large part to his receiver's excellent play of late. Wide receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad are keeping the pressure off the running game with their play. Right now, Smith and Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison are in a different category as far as receivers go. But unlike Harrison, Smith needs a Muhammad to play well for him to be great.

If the Panthers are able to play with that renewed confidence and keep some sense of offensive balance then they will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.

Joe Theismann

Football analyst
Former college and pro football star Joe Theismann has served as an analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football since 1988. He also is frequently heard on ESPN Radio, regularly contributes to ESPN.com and has contributed to the NFL Draft.

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