- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

HOUSTON — Defense, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t always win championships. Think of some of the great offensive-minded Super Bowl winners over the years: the 49ers of the ‘80s, the Cowboys of the ‘90s, the Rams of four seasons ago.

But it sure doesn’t hurt.

The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers are capable of scoring points. Make no mistake, though, these two teams are in town for Super Bowl XXXVIII because of their play on the defensive side of the ball.

And their ascension to the NFL’s grand stage is another confirmation that, even in this age of highlight-reel offensive fireworks, a great defense can carry you a long way.

“I think our style of football is appreciated,” New England linebacker Willie McGinest said. “Our system and our coaches have been a part of a lot of Super Bowls. It’s been a successful system. You’ve got the West Coast [offense] that has won Super Bowls before, but ours has proven to win, too.”

Statistically, the Patriots and Panthers didn’t have the league’s best defenses in 2003. New England ranked seventh overall, Carolina eighth.

But as the first month of 2004 winds down, there is no question that these two defenses are the best.

The Patriots made it to their second Super Bowl in three years by shutting down Peyton Manning and his supposedly unstoppable Indianapolis Colts offense in the AFC Championship. The Panthers reached their first Super Bowl by holding Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles to three points on the road in the NFC Championship.

Notice any similarities?

“One thing about New England, they have the same philosophy about football as we do,” Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. “It’s not anything like superstars going out and catching fancy passes. It’s who wins the battle in the trenches.”

The Patriots defense, engineered by mastermind coach Bill Belichick, tends to get all the attention around the league. Those who have followed the Panthers for some time know John Fox’s defensive unit is every bit as impressive.

In his second season as an NFL head coach, Fox already has assembled perhaps the best defensive line in the game. Tackles Jenkins (five sacks) and Brentson Buckner (a 10-year veteran and team captain) are flanked by ends Mike Rucker (12 sacks) and Julius Peppers (seven sacks and 2002 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year).

Collectively, Carolina’s linemen produced 32.5 sacks, second-most in the league, while leading a defense that surrendered 12 rushing touchdowns in 19 games.

Folks around the country are finally learning what those in Charlotte have known for some time: the Panthers’ defense takes a back seat to no one.

“The foundation was laid a long time ago,” Rucker said. “Now you’re starting to see the fruits of the tree.”

People have known about New England’s defensive prowess since Belichick devised a master gameplan to stymie the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI two years ago. Belichick continues to get the credit for creating his system, but as McGinest pointed out, “You can have the best system in the world. If you don’t have the athletes, it won’t work.”

The Patriots have no short supply of athletes, from perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law to Associated Press All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison and defensive end Richard Seymour and veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

Belichick’s complex and ever-changing system, however, demands intelligence just as much as sheer athletic ability.

“It’s definitely important,” Belichick said. “Our players have a lot of responsibilities that they have to handle.”

Along with multiple responsibilities, Patriots defenders must have small egos to make the system work. Linemen have to be willing to drop back into pass coverage if asked, cornerbacks have to be willing to blitz the quarterback.

“There is no selfishness, which is probably the biggest thing,” defensive tackle Ted Washington said. “We work together and stay together, and that’s the way it should be.”

Whether fans buy into the notion of stifling defense over exciting offense remains to be seen. The most memorable Super Bowl moments tend to be great offensive plays, not great pass breakups.

If the Panthers and Patriots have their way, that will all change on Sunday.

“Everybody says it is going to be boring because the way our styles are. This is going to be an exciting game,” Carolina cornerback Terry Cousin said. “This is when you pull out all the stops. There’s going to be a lot of things going on with both teams. You better have your hat on, because somebody is going to get hit.”

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