- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

HOUSTON — Tom Brady doesn’t want to hear about any lack of interest in Super Bowl XXXVIII. He’s been on football’s grandest stage before, and he understands the magnitude of Super Sunday — no matter how popular or unpopular the teams are.

“This is why guys play football,” Brady said. “This is the reason, this is the week, this is the game. It defines your playing career, it defines your legacy. The coaches know that, the players know that. To be able to be in this game this week and to prepare and to play, this is the reason. This is the NFL. This is for it all.”

Now, are you ready for some football?

The country might not be, considering that neither team has a national fan base. The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, however, have been waiting two weeks (and in some cases, a lifetime) for this game, and they aren’t about to let any lack of buzz spoil the moment.

“Seven years I’ve been waiting, seven years,” said safety Mike Minter, a member of the Panthers since 1997. “I’ve been waiting all my life. So to get to this point, you better seize the opportunity because it doesn’t come around every day. That’s what I tell guys: Live in the now. Don’t look to the future. Don’t worry about whether or not you might get here again. Live right now. Seize this moment and take advantage of it.”

When they take the field at state-of-the-art Reliant Stadium tonight, the Patriots and Panthers will be out to seize the moment, one team seeking to establish itself as the dominant one of its time and the other seeking to gain the Lombardi Trophy in its first trip to the Super Bowl.

New England (16-2), a seven-point favorite, enters with a 14-game winning streak. One more victory and the Patriots can stake their claim as the NFL’s modern dynasty, winners of two Super Bowls in three years.

“To win 14 straight is great,” Brady said, “but if we don’t win that 15th, then it is all for naught.”

Carolina (14-5), the proverbial overlooked underdog, hopes to cap its magical season with an unlikely championship, the first-ever for the region’s major pro sports franchises.

“We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain,” wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “There’s no pressure. We’ve got a lot of good things going for us.”

Maybe so, but it would appear the Patriots have more going for them.

Undefeated since a late-September loss to the Washington Redskins of all teams, New England has a certain air of invincibility. No opposing offense has been able to solve coach Bill Belichick’s ever-changing defensive schemes, including the seemingly unstoppable Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game.

Belichick, owner of the sport’s pre-eminent defensive mind, devised a way to stop Peyton Manning and Co. with only a week’s preparation. Now, he’s had two weeks to pore over tapes of Carolina’s much more simplistic offense in search of weaknesses.

“I think we’re ready to go,” Belichick said Friday. “Carolina has an extensive scheme, and they’re very good at what they do. Two weeks has given us enough time, meeting time, film time to see them and to be able to prepare for them.”

Belichick isn’t about to reveal his game plan, but it’s certain to center around stopping the Panthers’ running game. Ex-Redskin Stephen Davis and second-year back DeShaun Foster give Carolina an imposing one-two punch and have provided coach John Fox with the bread and butter of his offense.

If the Patriots can stifle the running game, the pressure will fall squarely on quarterback Jake Delhomme. Delhomme has performed admirably during the postseason — his 102.6 passer rating in victories over Dallas, St. Louis and Philadelphia is a full 28 points better than Brady’s over the same span — but Carolina only rarely had to rely on its first-year starting quarterback to win games.

“Jake has had two weeks to prepare,” Fox said. “He’s studied a lot of tape. He had a passion to do that. He has a good understanding of where things are coming from.”

For his part, the poised Delhomme seemed unfazed all week by what New England might throw at him.

“Don’t get me wrong — they might come up with a wrinkle or two on Sunday,” he said. “We have to be prepared for them and adjust accordingly. But really we just have to worry about what the Panthers do first.”

For all the attention the Patriots’ defense has drawn this week, the Panthers’ unit is nearly as imposing. Owners of perhaps the best front four in the league, Carolina surely will go after Brady all night in hopes of flustering him.

The Patriots quarterback and his teammates, though, have been unflappable all season, and there’s little reason to believe that’s going to change.

“We do a good job of being prepared,” defensive end Richard Seymour said. “We’ve been doing that all year, so we’re not going to change what we’ve been doing.”

Of course, no player can predict how he’ll respond once he sprints out of the tunnel and finds himself under the brightest spotlight of his life.

As much as they’d like to think of this as just another football game, the Patriots and Panthers know better.

“You have to try to approach it like that,” New England linebacker Willie McGinest said. “But in all reality, it’s the Super Bowl. Everybody knows that. It’s the biggest game in the world.”

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