Look for low-scoring Super Bowl
Don't expect the Patriots and Panthers to light up the Super Bowl scoreboard. Not with defenses like this.
The way New England and Carolina are playing, they're sure to provide plenty of sacks and turnovers in a surprise matchup in the NFL championship game on Feb. 1. The Patriots opened as early seven-point favorites, and with good reason.
But Carolina? Two years ago, the Panthers were 1-15. No one gave the Panthers much of a chance in these playoffs, either, not with Philadelphia and St. Louis snatching the top two seeds in the NFC.
Behind a strong defense and steady quarterback play, the Panthers first upset the Rams on the road in the divisional round. Then they went into Philadelphia and dominated 14-3 Sunday in the championship game to earn their first Super Bowl berth.
Ricky Manning Jr. had three interceptions, and the defense made Donovan McNabb miserable, forcing the superstar quarterback out of the game with bruised ribs.
"The defense played lights out," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "It's a huge team win, and that's what this is about."
The Patriots beat Indianapolis 24-14 in the AFC championship game the same way, harassing co-MVP Peyton Manning into his worst game of the season. Ty Law also had three interceptions, and Jarvis Green had three of their four sacks.
"I'm going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I can at least get some sleep," Delhomme said. "I don't want to think about that defense just yet."
Now the Super Bowl in Houston features two defensive teams with consistent quarterbacks. Manning and McNabb may have grabbed all the headlines, but Tom Brady and Delhomme are the only quarterbacks left playing.
Carolina, known mostly for its off-field problems until this season, cruised to the NFC South title. It all happened just two seasons after one of the most disastrous finishes in NFL history.
The final game to close it out was against New England on Jan. 6, 2002 -- the last regular-season meeting between the two teams.
The Patriots won 38-6 to wrap up the AFC East title and hand the Panthers their record 15th consecutive loss in front of a nearly empty stadium. George Seifert was fired the next morning, while the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl, with Brady leading the way.
|“||I'm going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I can at least get some sleep. I don't want to think about that defense just yet. ”|
|— Jake Delhomme, Panthers QB|
This season, Brady finished third to Steve McNair and Peyton Manning in the MVP voting, and he did enough against the Colts, going 22-of-37 for 237 yards and a touchdown.
The more impressive statistic: Brady is undefeated in five playoff appearances and 39-12 in his first 51 starts.
"Tom Brady is the greatest winner in football right now," Law said. "I want to go out there with Tom Brady. With all due respect to Steve and Peyton, winning is the card that trumps everything."
Both teams know how to win with defense. The Panthers have one of the best lines in the league with ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers, tackles Kris Jenkins, an All-Pro, and Brentson Buckner, thanks to defensive-minded coach John Fox.
"We know they've got a great defense, especially their front seven. They've got some very dynamic players up front," Belichick said. "We've got our work cut out for us."
Unlike the Patriots, the Panthers have a standout running game with offseason acquisition Stephen Davis, who finished third in the NFC with 1,444 yards rushing.
New England overcame early injuries on defense and the loss of Laywer Milloy to stymie its opponents. Its only Pro Bowl selections were on defense: Richard Seymour, Law and Willie McGinest, who was added as an injury replacement at linebacker.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press