JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There is little doubt that the most intriguing, but under-reported, subplot of Super Bowl XXXIX is the in-game alterations at which both coaching staffs have demonstrated they are so adept.
In a league where the much-discussed "halftime adjustments" are more myth than reality, and where head coaches become paralyzed by the unexpected, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Eagles counterpart Andy Reid excel at the art of flexibility. They can be football chameleons, able to change colors from one series to the next, and are superb at thinking on the fly.
Asked on Friday, in his final press conference of the week, about his responsibility to remain even-keeled on the sideline, Belichick acknowledged that is, indeed, paramount for him and the coaches around him.
"I think that, as a coach, a big part of my job is decision-making throughout the course of the game," Belichick conceded. "I have to focus on what's coming ahead. It's my job to be in a position to do what I need to do, to make the decisions I need to make, because that's what people are counting on me to do."
Still, while Super Bowl XXXIX sets up more than any other championship matchup in recent history as a "coach's game," it will be up to the players to execute. And here are five player-related reasons why, come Sunday night, New England will have won a third Super Bowl title in four seasons:
1. Remember this name: Kevin Faulk. Sound familiar? It should. In last year's story on why the Patriots would win Super Bowl XXXVIII, we opined that the New England backup tailback would be a factor against the Carolina Panthers, the perfect complement to then-starter Antowain Smith. And Faulk came up big in the Pats' championship game victory, rushing six times for 42 yards, and catching four passes for 19 yards. This has not been a stellar season for the six-year veteran, who missed the first three games of the year while he attended to his dying mother, and the final two because of injury. The former LSU standout rushed for just 255 yards, his lowest total since 2001. And his 248 receiving yards were the fewest since that same '01 campaign. But the underrated Faulk has demonstrated a knack for coming up big in big games and, in two postseason outings this year, he has averaged 5.4 yards on 14 rushing attempts and caught one pass for an 11-yard gain. In his six career playoff appearances, Faulk has carried 17 times for 85 yards, a 5.1-yard average, and has a dozen receptions for 79 yards. Those numbers figure to expand on Sunday evening when, we're guessing, Faulk will play the role of stiletto while starting tailback Corey Dillon is the sledgehammer. Here's the (slightly educated) guess: The Pats will open the game in an "empty" set, spread out with five receivers, and Faulk probably in the slot. The gambit will do a couple things. It will probably force Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to take middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, not a strong coverage player, off the field. The Eagles will have to counter with their "nickel" package, and the Pats feel their No. 3 receiver, probably David Patten, is better than Philadelphia No. 3 cornerback Roderick Hood. But the most significant thing is that the Eagles will have to cover Faulk with a linebacker. Can you say "no contest"? Faulk is a clever route-runner, a slippery player very adept at the kind of option patterns that will get him out into space, where he is tough to handle. Ironically, there has been some discussion this week of how Eagles do-it-all tailback Brian Westbrook reminds people of St. Louis Rams star and future Hall of Fame member Marshall Faulk. By the end of Sunday night's game, it will be interesting to see if Westbrook has as major an impact on the game as Kevin Faulk does.
2. Much has been made of the availability of defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who missed the final regular-season game and both playoff contests with a torn ligament in his left knee. Make no mistake about it, the return of Seymour, who plays end in the 3-4 and tackle when New England jumps into its 4-3 alignment, is big. But look for the Patriots to "Ty" one on against the Eagles, just as they did at Pittsburgh in the AFC championship matchup. Second-year veteran Ty Warren, the team's first-round pick in the 2003 draft, has emerged as a big-time player during this postseason run. He had eight tackles versus the Steelers, playing against an offensive line that many considered the NFL's best unit, and moved the line of scrimmage a yard into the Pittsburgh backfield. One Steelers coach allowed that, in the AFC title game, Warren was "like a full-grown man just toying with a bunch of kids, he was so dominant." Warren will play left end in the 3-4, then sink down to tackle in "nickel" situations and when the Pats morph into their 4-3 look. That puts him against either tackle Jon Runyan or guard Jermane Mayberry, both of them beatable. Although he is mostly a two-gap player by nature, Warren has enough sneaky quickness at times to penetrate through small openings. Some of the New England coaches told us that there was a stretch this season when Warren was actually playing better than Seymour in some situations. Having the two on the field together (although Seymour may not start, and might open the contest playing only on third down, until he gets his feet back on the ground) figures to be a huge boost for the New England defensive front. The unit, in fact, has played consistently well over the final month or so. The focal point for the Patriots, as with any Bill Belichick-designed defense, is the linebackers. But the Pats' line really is becoming more of a factor. By unofficial count, the New England linemen had 29 tackles in the two playoff victories, an unusually high number for a unit that most people feel just clears the way for the linebackers to make plays.
3. During his six seasons in the league, no quarterback has fewer turnovers (interceptions and lost fumbles) than Eagles star Donovan McNabb, who simply takes incredible care of the football. But it seems like Tom Brady never makes a killer mistake in a huge game. And they don't come any bigger, do they, than this contest, which will establish the Patriots as the closest thing to a dynasty we will witness in this era of free agency, the salary cap and wholesale player mobility. Even though he will enter the contest with a heavy heart, given the death of his grandmother earlier this week, Brady will still be consummately prepared, even for the exotic blitzes the Eagles might throw at him. In fact, Brady might actually welcome the Jim Johnson blitz package. In his two playoff appearances this year, Brady has an amazing passer efficiency rating of 115.4 when his opponents have blitzed him. Some players raise the level of their game in the playoffs, but Brady just maintains his degree of excellence, as indicated by the fact his postseason passer rating (86.2) is within one point of his career rating for the regular season (87.2). But look at his touchdowns-interceptions ratio in the playoffs. He has thrown nine touchdown passes and three interceptions in the postseason, a 3-1 quotient, and one New England wideout told us this week that at least one of the interceptions was on a busted pass route. In the regular season, Brady has a touchdown-interception ratio of 1.86-1. "He isn't going to give us many shots (at interceptions)," acknowledged Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. "And you can't let him get into a rhythm." Indeed, if the Patriots come out in the "empty" set, as we have predicted, it could be difficult for the Philadelphia defense to control him. Although he has gone vertical a lot more lately in the playoffs, Brady is adept at the West Coast components of the Charlie Weis design, and that means throwing the seven-yard "slants" and "outs" off three- and five-step drops. When the ball is coming out of his hand so quickly, the blitz doesn't matter as much, because the pass is already delivered by the time the defender gets into the pocket. Plus, Brady spreads the wealth around more than Ebenezer Scrooge on the Christmas of his celebrated epiphany. The Patriots had 16 different players catch passes in 2004, and a league-high 10 had at least one touchdown reception.
4. With a team-high 20 tackles in the postseason, and two interceptions that include one returned for a touchdown, Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison is on a roll. As noted above, the New England linebackers remain the strength of the defense, but there is no denying that Harrison is the most physical hitter in the "backside" of the unit, and the player most likely to deliver a game-altering big play. Regarded as used-up by many teams in the league two years ago, when the Patriots signed him as an unrestricted free agent, Harrison has been a comfortable fit for what Belichick wants in the interior of his secondary. Does the 11-year veteran move as well as he once did? No, but, then again, he was never a defender noted much for his great range. Instead, Harrison is about smarts, awareness, football savvy. He can still be a liability at times in coverage, but Harrison will get all the Patriots' youngsters (two second-year veterans and an undrafted rookie) aligned in the right spots in the secondary. And you can bet the defensive coaches have built into their game plan some wrinkles that will allow Harrison to make a few forays into the Philadelphia backfield on pass- and run-blitzes. It won't be too surprising, either, if he draws some "spy" duty against McNabb, and is called on to help "bracket" Eagles elusive tailback Brian Westbrook when he lines up in the slot. Harrison will be walked up into "the box" at times, as well, when New England morphs into some of its exotic multiple fronts. We're choosing Harrison as our most valuable player because, in our estimation, he is the defensive performer most likely to turn a close contest into a workable New England lead with a big, signature-type moment. Just a hunch here, but don't be surprised to hear the "R" word from Harrison if the Patriots win, since he actually talked about retirement after the club's Super Bowl XXXVIII victory.
5. There aren't many better special teams units than the one the Philadelphia Eagles possess, and special teams coach John Harbaugh is one of the premier kicking-game mentors in the league. But the Patriots have a habit of beating teams at what they do best and we're just guessing that New England special teams coach Brad Seely, another superior kicking-games tutor, will pull something out of his bag of tricks. We've been waiting for the explosive Bethel Johnson to have a breakout contest on kickoff returns and maybe Super Bowl XXXIX will be it. Johnson averaged 24.8 yards in the regular season but only 22.5 yards in two postseason contests. Against the Steelers in the AFC championship game, he appeared tentative at times, and really didn't try to slam the ball up through the seam and beyond the first wave of tacklers. Bet the mortgage that Seely made him aware of that over the past two weeks. Of course, the Pats also have the ultimate special teams weapon in kicker Adam Vinatieri, who booted the winning field goal in each of New England's two Super Bowl victories. Here's a notable statistical item: Vinatieri's counterpart, David Akers, actually has the better postseason field-goal conversion percentage (80.9-76.7) of the two kickers. There's no doubt that Akers is terrific and, if he gets an opportunity to win the game in the late stages, don't bet against him. The difference is, Vinatieri has already done it twice.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.