- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

HOUSTON — The New England Patriots are on the verge of a purported mini-dynasty. The Carolina Panthers are two years removed from the NFL’s dregs. The seven-point spread could have fans in for another Super blowout. Or the battle of two vanilla, defense-centric squads could put everyone to sleep by halftime.

If there’s hype in the house, you know it’s Super Bowl week. The Super scrutiny began in earnest yesterday as the Patriots and Panthers, foes in Super Bowl XXXVIII Sunday at Reliant Stadium, held their first practices in town and the bulk of media arrived for a wild walk-up week to the crown jewel of sporting events.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Carolina safety Mike Minter said. “I mean, the Super Bowl. This is what you’ve dreamt about since you were a little kid.”

The story lines are clear: The Patriots, back as heavy favorites after upsetting the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, could validate a modern version of dominance with a second championship in three years. The Panthers hope to cap an astonishing rise from 1-15 in 2001.

Both clubs have adopted a business-like approach to what otherwise is a week of spectacle and celebration for Space City, though here and there players acknowledged the significance of their quest.

“It’s setting in a little bit,” Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan said. “Especially today with all the media here right now. It’s been crazy around here. You can tell that people are starting to get excited.”

New England’s return to this stage has generated claims they are a model franchise in the salary cap era, a club that spends wisely in free agency, finds contributors throughout the draft and then coaches the group into a sum far greater than its parts.

Descriptions of coach Bill Belichick as a game-planning “genius” only have grown since his team shut down the Indianapolis Colts’ prolific offense in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots’ 14 straight wins represent the NFL’s longest win streak in a single season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated.

Two years ago, the Rams were considered the era’s potentially dominant team, and New England was viewed as little more than supporting cast for St. Louis’ statement game. Now the roles have been reversed; the Panthers are targeting an upset, and the Patriots are handling expectations.

“We don’t really care about that,” Belichick said. “If we don’t prepare well, we’re not going to beat anybody. We know this is going to be our toughest game of the year, and that’s how we’re going to prepare for it.”

Twenty-three Panthers remain from the 1-15 squad, but their mindset has been overhauled by coach John Fox and their roster upgraded by a smooth-running front office. The No. 1 addition has been former Washington Redskins running back Stephen Davis, who was released by the Redskins last spring for cap reasons and because he didn’t fit then-coach Steve Spurrier’s offense.

Although Davis was limited in an NFC title game victory at Philadelphia, where he split carries with second-year back DeShaun Foster, the veteran bruiser practiced fully on his strained quadriceps yesterday and Fox pronounced him “full-tilt.”

“He looked just like he’s looked all season,” Fox said after practice. “He’s definitely healthy.”

Having two weeks to prepare, in the eyes of many observers, gives Belichick a big advantage in stopping Davis. Already Belichick has a defensive game plan on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame — his squelching of the Buffalo Bills as New York Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV after the 1990 season — not to mention less-heralded work against St. Louis two years ago and Indianapolis a week ago.

Carolina, though, is no defensive slouch itself. Fox was successful as the Giants’ coordinator from 1997 to 2001, and with the Panthers he had the NFL’s No. 2 defense in 2002 and brings the league’s premier defensive line into this game.

With so much defensive firepower and perhaps just one bona fide star on each offense (Davis for Carolina, quarterback Tom Brady for New England), the game threatens to feature little of the excitement of the great Super Bowls and only a fraction of the intrigue of last year’s meeting between Oakland’s No. 1 offense and Tampa Bay’s No. 1 defense.

“None of that matters,” Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said. “I don’t care if it’s 3-0 if we get another ring on our fingers.”

Indeed, it’s the Super Bowl. The hype is here.

“It’s good to be settled,” Belichick said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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