Extra week will affect teams
Eric Allen gives his take on which cornerback is playing better right now and who will win Super Bowl XXXVIII.
1. How big of a difference will New England's previous Super Bowl experience make going into this contest?
The Patriots previous experience will help them because their first Super Bowl victory was as a team. They did everything with the idea of winning or losing as a team right down to being introduced as a team during the pre-game. This is essentially the same team with a just a few changes in personnel and I'm sure they remember the entire Super Bowl process.
The big difference between the Pats and the Panthers will be how the teams handle the spectacle that is Super Bowl week. That's when the Patriots experience will come into play because they've gone through the exhausting media day and the spotlight before. Meanwhile, the Panthers have flown under the radar all season and haven't faced anything close to the type of media exposure they're about to see. That exposure and the glare of the world literally watching can be extremely distracting and the Panthers may struggle in their first dealings with it.
2. Is the extra week off a benefit or detriment?
The extra week is a detriment to the players and organizations. By the time the Super Bowl rolls around, the players are in a groove and are used to playing once a week -- unless they've received a playoff bye. The extra week off either dulls the timing of the players and produces a sloppy game or allows the coordinators too much time to dissect the opposing team. That's why historically games with the extra week are blowouts. I don't expect a blowout in this year's game because of the defensive nature of both teams, but I do expect a low-scoring sloppy game that won't live up to the Super Bowl-hype.
Both teams have excellent, intelligent defensive players and are led by great defensive coaches. This will be a defensive slugfest that will be won in the trenches. Don't expect a 35-28 game, this will be one of the lower scoring games in Super Bowl history.
Both players are playing extremely well even though they have different styles. Ricky Manning Jr. is a more aggressive cornerback who gets his hands up on receivers and uses his athleticism to his advantage. Not to discount his intelligence because he's a very intelligent cornerback, but right now he's relying more on athleticism more than someone like Ty Law. Manning seems to be following the rest of the Panthers corners with his style because they all play alike. It's very hard for opposing receivers to get a clean jump off the ball against them, which gives the Panthers fearsome front four more time to get to the quarterback.
Meanwhile, Law is a more cerebral cornerback who has evolved into the best at his position. He may not be as athletic as the receivers who face him, but he does a marvelous job outthinking them. He's very opportunistic as his three interceptions against quarterback Peyton Manning proved. Law also does a great job showing the offense one thing in his coverage and then doing something entirely different. That forces the offense to audible into a different formation that the Patriots defense can capitalize on. When two corners get three picks apiece in championship games, they have to be applauded.
4. What's the best individual matchup in this game?
The best matchup is Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith vs. Law. Both players are having excellent postseasons and excellent seasons altogether. This is a great matchup of a speedster vs. a thinker. Before his latest hot streak, Smith was known primarily as a downfield threat and nothing else. But over the past few weeks, he's stepped his play up accordingly. Now Smith can be counted on to go across the middle and he's running precise routes. He's done a wonderful job finding the soft spots of zones and punishing defenses with his running ability after the catch. He's the most dangerous receiver left in the playoffs and will be a handful for Law.
On the other side of the ball, Law is coming off a matchup against wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Law did a great job against one of the best receivers in the game and he did it by using is own intelligence and the players around him. He never put himself in a position for Harrison to break a big play or any play for that matter. He put on a clinic for cornerbacks to watch and every time a ball came near him, he got his hands on it and either picked it or knocked it down. Against Smith, he's going to have to be equally as good because Smith isn't afraid of anyone in the league. Law must shade him towards the middle of the field and stop him from catching the ball over the top of the defense because that's when he's most deadly.
5. Who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XXXVIII?
Quarterback Tom Brady may be the key to this game. He received a raw deal in the MVP and Pro-Bowl voting, but may rectify that with another Super Bowl MVP. He's gone head-to-head with the two co-MVPs during the postseason and outplayed them both. He's alternately made big plays and managed the offense. In a word, Brady is a winner. If there's a play to be made in the fourth quarter, he'll make it. He did it against me and he'll do it to the Panthers because that's his makeup.
Also, Coach Belichick will use the extra week to devise a defensive game plan to stop running backs DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis. He knows the key to the offense is the running game and will focus on stopping it while also limiting the effectiveness of quarterback Jake Delhomme.
This game features two of the best defenses in the NFL and both will try their best to throw a shutout. But in the end, it's impossible to bet against Brady and Belichick -- especially with this much time.
Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders.