- Joe Theismann, Football analyst
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The year's Super Bowl matchup features two teams with incredibly tough defenses. The New England Patriots feature a defense that only allowed 89.6 rushing yards per game (No. 4 in the NFL) and 14.9 points per game (No. 1). Meanwhile, the Panthers defense has given up 187.7 passing yards per game (No. 9) and 19 points per game (No. 10). But as ferocious as both teams are, they are dominant in different ways. While the Panthers rely on their front four to bring pressure and force mistakes, the Pats use a series of different looks and schemes to dominate. If given a choice, as a quarterback, I wouldn't want to face either because both can hurt you in different ways.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is facing the best front four in football. In my opinion, all four (Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker) of these guys are Pro-Bowl players. To combat this, Brady must trust his offensive line and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' blocking schemes.
He's a levelheaded, tough quarterback who's shown a great ability to react well in the clutch. I'm sure if you monitored his heart from the beginning of this game to the closing moments there wouldn't be any difference at all. He's excellent at keeping his emotions in check and will need it facing this daunting defensive line. That said, he can't afford to out think himself while facing this team. He can't start worrying about defensive schemes because his mind has to be focused on the job at hand and that's winning this game.
The Panthers secondary reacts quickly to the ball, so Brady must get rid of the ball. Whether it's Deon Grant, Terry Cousin or Ricky Manning Jr., they all have the ability to make a play on the ball. Brady will need to hit his spots quickly because this secondary works very well in conjunction with their linebackers. The Panthers linebackers are quick enough to get to areas and help the secondary in coverage by making hits or disrupting the routes of receivers.
The Panthers are very good at capitalizing on mistakes by quarteracks as proven by Manning's three interceptions in the NFC Championship game. Brady can't afford to make the same mistakes other quarterbacks have by throwing in the middle of the field, because the linebackers and secondary will converge and make plays.
On the other side of the ball, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme can't get caught up in the complexity of what the Patriots are trying to throw at him. He's an excitable guy who'll probably be calmer at the end of this game rather than at the beginning. Right now, he's facing the unknown because the Pats are the best defense in the NFL and switch schemes and formations often. He's also facing two defensive geniuses in coordinator Romeo Crennel and coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots are going to try and do what a lot of other teams have tried -- they'll attempt to control running back Stephen Davis on first down and put them in bad down-and-distance situations. The Pats want to force Carolina into third and long situations because it gives them a chance to throw different looks at them.
In those third-and-long situations the Patriots can do what they do best pretend to play man coverage and then switch to zone. They like to act as if cornerback Ty Law is playing man coverage and then have him start playing off and give the receiver to the linebacker. At that point the quarterback thinks he's getting man coverage and throws the ball behind the route's coverage. That's when Law is able to make a play on the ball as he did against the Colts in the AFC Championship game.
That's why it's very important the receivers are in the right place where they belong because they have to be in the window of opportunity when it opens. That's when discipline becomes very important because they have to run the routes the way they are supposed to be run. There can't be any room for mistakes or Delhomme and the team will pay the consequences because this is an opportunistic defense.
Of course, that also means that Delhomme can't afford to make bad throws and float passes like he did against the Eagles. This team isn't going to allow him to get away with those mistakes because the defense is full of ball hawks.
Also, when the Pats are in their 3-4 formation, they like to cheat over one step and one step closer to the crossing routes in the field. That means that there are basically eight people vs. seven, so the holes are smaller which makes it harder for the offense to defend. For instance, Peyton Manning -- on the Rodney Harrison interception in the end zone -- didn't see Harrison at all because he wasn't in his vision. He thought he was ok and boom he popped up like he came up out of the carpet.
Both quarterbacks are facing tough defenses who'll try their best to sublimate the offenses in this game. It's not going to be easy for either players to have a big game at the big game, but if they stay within their abilities they should be able to pull it off.
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.