- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

NEW ORLEANS It has been quite a postseason of matchups for New England cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith. First they had to face Oakland's sure Hall of Famer receivers, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Last week's challenge was Pittsburgh's first pair of 1,000-yard wideouts, Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. And now Law and Smith will have perhaps the toughest jobs in tonight's Super Bowl XXXVI.
While the rest of New England's defense gangs up on St. Louis' MVP duo of quarterback Kurt Warner and halfback Marshall Faulk, the Patriots' cornerbacks will mostly be left to handle Pro Bowl wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt all by themselves.
"It doesn't get any easier," said Smith, who teamed with Law to hold the wily Raiders receivers and the physical Steelers wideouts in check the past two weeks. "It's the game within the game. You have to compete with them. Their offense won't slow down, and they like to take the big shot and go for the win. We have to attack force with force."
The Rams are 11-2 indoors and 12-2 on artificial turf, which only enhances their lightning speed, while the slower Patriots are 2-0 in domes and 3-0 on the fake stuff. Indianapolis generated 484 yards 157 by Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison in New England's first such game before the Patriots shut down Atlanta inside two weeks later.
"You have to have guys who aren't afraid to make plays, and we have [those] guys," New England nickel corner Terrell Buckley said of trying to slow the St. Louis express.
The Patriots weren't aggressive enough pressuring Warner and didn't make enough plays in losing 24-17 at home to the Rams on Nov. 18. Despite playing outdoors on grass in contrast to their preferred indoor habitat, the Rams racked up 482 yards, 396 in the air. Warner was only sacked once. Bruce and Holt who finished 1-2 in the NFC with averages of 17.3 and 16.8 yards per catch this year combined for 14 receptions, 219 yards and a touchdown in perhaps their most dominant performance of 2001.
Still, the 27-year-old Law said having faced the Rams once will help tonight.
"A lot of teams who play the Rams don't wake up until the middle of the second quarter and they're already down 21-0," Law said. "By then it's too late to come back. Having played them already, we won't be caught off guard by their speed. I think we match up with them very well. We can play finesse [a la speedsters Bruce and Holt] if we have to, but we're at our best when we're aggressive. We like to get in your face and challenge you, play bump and run given the opportunity. We didn't play as much man-to-man as we would have liked the last time. Hopefully, we'll get that opportunity this time."
For the second time in the three seasons that Law (5-foot-11, 199 pounds) and Smith (5-11, 196) have teamed up, the Patriots have the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.
"Ty and Otis are both relatively big and physical," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Ty has good quickness and upper body strength, and he can get up there and challenge receivers. Otis is a very diligent player who's probably as good an example as we have to our younger players in terms of preparation, work ethic and consistency. Both of them have made some good plays on the ball, and they're both pretty good tacklers as corners go."
But where Law stepped right into the lineup as New England's top draft pick in 1996 out of Michigan and made the Pro Bowl in 1998 when he led the NFL with nine interceptions, Smith's road to a second Super Bowl start in six years was much rockier. After not being drafted out of Missouri in 1990, Smith spent his rookie year with Philadelphia on injured reserve. He didn't become a starter until 1995, when he signed with the New York Jets as a free agent.
Cut by the Jets two games into 1996, Smith caught on with the Patriots and became a starter late in the year. His 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown sealed the AFC Championship game victory. Smith returned to the Jets in 1997 and started for three years before being cut in August 2000. Then he went back to New England and resumed his spot opposite Law.
At 36, Smith is now the NFL's oldest starting corner. He tied for fourth in the AFC with five interceptions this year while Law returned two of his three pickoffs for touchdowns to increase his franchise record to five such scores.
"Otis probably gets overlooked at times because of Lawyer [Milloy, New England's three-time Pro Bowl strong safety] and myself, but he's the glue," Law said.
If Law and Smith can stick to Bruce and Holt like glue tonight, the 14-point underdogs just might spring one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets. But the Patriots won't rest easy defending against "The Greatest Show on Turf" until the final seconds have expired.
"Every time they snap the ball, I'm going to hold my breath and hope that nothing bad happens," said New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.


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