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.
They have won 14 straight, becoming the first team since the
unbeaten 1972 Dolphins to win 14 games in a row in one season, and
have coach of the year Bill Belichick on their sideline. And for
the second time in three years, they are in the Super Bowl.
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
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
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.
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.