- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

The Carolina Panthers’ surprising NFC Championship victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was only minutes old, and already Jake Delhomme was having nightmares about his upcoming opponent in the Super Bowl.

“I’m going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I can at least get some sleep,” Carolina’s young quarterback said. “I don’t want to think about that defense just yet.”

Besides, with an off-week before the two teams converge on Houston, Delhomme and the Panthers will have plenty of time to worry about the New England Patriots.

Super Bowl XXXVIII is still 12 days away, but the game’s primary story line already has come into focus: Can Carolina’s bread-and-butter offense produce enough points against coach Bill Belichick’s devastating defense to earn the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy?

Conventional wisdom says it’s going to be tough. Then again, the Panthers (14-5) have been defying conventional wisdom all season long, so who’s to say they can’t do it one more time?

Well, the oddsmakers, for one. The early line has New England (16-2) a 61/2-point favorite to win its second Super Bowl title in three years.

“Nobody ever gives us a shot to win any game,” Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said, “and ain’t nobody going to give us a shot to win this one.”

If the Panthers defy the odds and solve the great mystery of Belichick’s defense, they will be in rare company. Few offenses have found any success against New England this season, especially in recent weeks.

The Patriots have given up 21 or more points only three times this year; over the last six games, they have surrendered an average of 9.5 points. And in perhaps their most impressive showing to date, they held red-hot Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to 14 points in Sunday’s AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium.

Using a host of deceptive alignments and defensive packages, New England seemed to be toying with the Colts’ supposedly unstoppable offense, forcing five turnovers en route to a 24-14 victory.

That’s what a defensive wizard like Belichick can do when he has a week to prepare for an opponent.

“When I saw what our defense was doing against our scout team during the week, I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m glad I’m not playing quarterback against us,’” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “They really make it tough on you with all the different looks.”

Now, imagine what Belichick might be able to conjure up with two weeks before the Super Bowl.

Actually, his task shouldn’t be as difficult as it was last week. The Panthers offense has proved to be of high quality, but it has nowhere near the intricacies or big-play capabilities of Indianapolis’ unit.

Carolina uses a simple formula on offense: Run the ball extensively and mix in a few high-percentage passes from time to time. Sunday night against Philadelphia, the formula produced fabulous results. The Panthers ran for 155 yards (76 by ex-Redskin Stephen Davis, 60 by second-year backup DeShaun Foster). Delhomme threw the ball only 14 times, completing nine for 101 yards.

There’s only so much you can do schematically to try to stop such an attack. More than anything, a game like this goes to the team that simply makes more plays than its opponent.

Again, conventional wisdom says the Patriots have more playmakers on defense — Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Ted Washington, Tedy Bruschi, to name a few — than the Panthers have on offense.

But Carolina’s players have shown an ability to come through in the clutch this month, whether in the form of Steve Smith’s 69-yard touchdown in double overtime against St. Louis or in Foster’s stunning 1-yard touchdown run at Philadelphia (in which he appeared stopped dead in his tracks before muscling his way into the end zone).

“Everybody wants to know who we are, what it is about us,” Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. “[Foster’s] play right there tells you all you need to know. We are tough, we’re hard-nosed and that run by DeShaun epitomized it. That run tells you who the Carolina Panthers are.”

There will be other story lines to the 38th Super Bowl — New England’s attempt to win its 15th straight game, Brady’s attempt to join an elite group of multiple-title quarterbacks, Carolina’s attempt to win the region’s first major pro sports championship — but in the end, this game will come down to the Panthers offense against the Patriots defense.

And if you believe linebacker Willie McGinest, New England’s vaunted defense may be primed for its best showing to date.

“We have shut out some teams, and we have had some good games at home where we didn’t give up any points,” McGinest said. “But I don’t think we have had the perfect game yet. Hopefully, we are saving it for the Super Bowl.”

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