The New England Patriots face the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII on February 1st. The Patriots did not play the Panther during the 2003 regular season, so there will be a learning curve for both teams as they prepare.
But one reputation that does precede the Panthers is a penchant for hard-hitting, often dominating defense, particularly along their defensive line. Among all of this year's playoff teams, Carolina's defense has ranked second in the postseason, allowing just 291 yards per game (New England is third with 295).
Since entering the playoffs, the Panthers have only improved on a defense that ranked eighth in the regular season. Carolina is particularly strong against the run, allowing just 91 yards per game (against New England's 96).
What makes this success possible is a very stout front four. Carolina's defensive line is led by right defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, a 6-4, 335-pound mauler who is one of the strongest players at his position in the league. He had five sacks this year plus another in the playoffs, and he was voted to the Pro Bowl this year.
To his left is 310-pound Brentson Buckner (a player the Patriots tried to sign in 2001). He is a 10-year veteran workhorse who can clog the middle and who had 1-1/2 sacks against the Eagles this past week. Backing them up is the versatile Shane Burton (yet another player the Patriots tried to sign, in 2002). The trio makes for a very tough defensive middle.
The Panthers get no easier on the edges. Right defensive end Mike Rucker had an impressive 12 sacks this season, his career high (for comparison, the Patriots' leader in sacks was linebacker Mike Vrabel with 9-1/2). Rucker added another sack against Philadelphia in the playoffs. Carolina's left defensive end is Julius Peppers, the second overall pick of the 2002 draft and an elite player who had 7 sacks this season plus another in the playoffs.
On the rare occasions when the Panthers aren't dominating at the line of scrimmage, the speed of their linebackers allows the defense to keep plays in front of them. Outside linebacker Will Witherspoon was the team's regular season tackles leader, but middle linebacker Dan Morgan is the true force to be reckoned with.
A former first-round draft pick (11th overall in the same draft that landed the Patriots Richard Seymour), Morgan was plagued by injuries his first two years but now that he is healthy he has become a hard-hitting run stopper. He is the team's leading tackler in the playoffs.
What makes these players formidable is the intangible: they are extremely tough and will overpower an offense with sheer determination. How can the Patriots, particularly with an offensive line that lacks its star, Damien Woody, counter Carolina's seemingly immovable objects?
Actually, the Patriots have done it before. It was in the middle of the 2001 season, when the New Orleans Saints came into Foxboro with a reputation as a hard-hitting, physical team, particularly on defense, that punishes opponents. But New England turned that impression around and sent the Saints out of town a truly beaten team with a 34-17 win.
New England's offense has rarely been described as dominating, particularly in the running game, but it was just that against New Orleans. The key to New England's success was lead rusher Antowain Smith. He not only ran the ball with authority, but, once established, the mere threat of his running provided quarterback Tom Brady with opportunities for the play-action pass as well as the time to throw against a defense that was on its heels all day.
Smith started the scoring on a 41-yard screen pass catch-and-run for a touchdown on the team's first drive. The play was set-up by a roll out to the right by Brady, who was starting just the ninth game of his career. Brady was under pressure but lofted a pass over the heads of the on-coming rushers to a wide-open Smith.
Offensive linemen Mike Compton and Damien Woody got surprisingly far downfield and sealed an enormous patch of green that allowed Smith to score with relative ease. It would be Smith's first of three receptions and first of two touchdowns on the day.
It was Smith's hard between-the-tackles running, however, that defeated the Saints. The previous week, Smith had lost a critical fumble against St. Louis on the Rams' 2-yard line, effectively resulting in a 14-point swing as the Patriots failed to score and the Rams began a 98-yard touchdown drive. But rather than lose focus and faith in himself following that loss, Smith went out against the Saints with something to prove.
Smith did not once put the ball on the ground against New Orleans, and gained 111 yards on his 24 carries for his third 100-yard game of the season to that point. He had an impressive 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
Smith's second touchdown of the day on a three-yard rush in the fourth quarter capped the scoring and sealed the game for New England. Later that season, Smith broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in New England since Robert Edwards was a healthy Patriot.
What is most remarkable about Smith's performance is that it came against the stout front of the New Orleans defense. Featuring massive and savvy linemen such as Joe Johnson and La'Roi Glover, the Saints defense had been one of the best in the league at applying pressure to opposing offenses. They entered the game ranked 12th in the league against the run. They had a reputation for smash-mouth football.
And they were soundly beaten by the Patriots' offensive line, which consistently pushed the Saints off the ball, got down field on pulling plays, and beat the Saints at their own punishing game. The return of left tackle Matt Light from a shoulder injury and a stomach illness provided a big boost to the running game.
The Patriots finished the day with a season-high 191 rushing yards, behind Smith's 111 yards, another 36 from Kevin Faulk, and a tough 20 from J.R. Redmond who made a late appearance to spell Smith and help run down the clock at the end of the game. Although Brady was sacked four times, that was in part due to solid coverage. For the most part, the Patriots dominated in all phases along the line, and held a time of possession advantage of more than 10 minutes (35:47 to 24:13).
Smith is still with the Patriots and has been hitting his stride at just the right time. In fact, he has been getting better and better as the season wore on, having his best string of games in the playoffs. He ran for 100 yards against the Colts in this past Sunday's win, and hung 69 yards on the Tennessee Titans the previous week. That would seem a small sum, except that the Titans boasted the league's best run defense. Smith had one of the key plays in that win, churning out 17 yards from the New England 5-yard line just before the fourth quarter in the key field position shift of the contest.
He will have to be that tough and more against the Panthers. As noted above, the Patriots had great success running against the tough New Orleans defensive front, aided by good blocks from offensive linemen Mike Compton and Damien Woody. But neither Compton nor Woody is available for the Super Bowl; both are on injured reserve.
In their places stand backup Russ Hochstein at left guard and rookie fifth-round pick Dan Koppen at center. Hochstein had just his second start of the season in last week's AFC Championship game, but he performed well: that is, he went unnoticed, the best outcome for an offensive lineman. Perhaps more importantly, he did well in spot duty the week before against Tennessee's massive defensive tackle Al Haynesworth. That was likely a better test than Indianapolis' smallish front four, and Hochstein passed (although he earned just an "okay" from head coach Bill Belichick, which could count for high praise from the reticent coach).
Hochstein will be tested again in the Super Bowl, by Jenkins in particular. He will need some help from his line mates, but they will each have their hands full: left tackle Matt Light with Rucker, right guard Joe Andruzzi with Buckner. That leaves Koppen to assist with stopping the dangerous Panthers interior.
The New England offensive line is playing well, however. They helped the team rush for a combined 112 yards last week and prevented Brady from being sacked for the second week in a row.
In that 2001 win over the tough Saints, the New England defense had a fine day, as well. Injuries to middle linebackers Ted Johnson and Bryan Cox caused the team to open in a true 4-3 alignment for the first time that season but the formation was effective as linemen Anthony Pleasant and Richard Seymour were frequently in the New Orleans backfield. The speed of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks limited the Patriots to only one sack despite solid pressure.
Overall, the bend-don't-break philosophy won out, giving up 428 net yards but causing drives to stall and holding the Saints to just 17 points. The defense pitched a shutout in the first half and prevented Brooks from leading a comeback in the second when the Saints seized momentum after third quarter scores. Although they allowed the Saints to march 83 yards for a fourth quarter touchdown, the defense forced the Saints to earn it the hard way, running more than 5 minutes off the clock. The Saints did get the ball back, but Brooks' second interception of the day ended the game.
With that defensive performance, there could be only one conclusion: the Patriots were more physical than the powerful Saints, on both sides of the ball.
The Patriots surprised the Saints and the league in general by out-toughing the tough guys. New England was dominant in every phase of the game and the players were clearly energized, relishing the fact that for a change they were popping an opponent in the mouth. This was the first game of the 2001 season in which the Saints lost by more than 8 points, as the Patriots, once known (fairly or otherwise) as a "finesse" team, established a power running game and kept the physical Saints on their heels for most of the day.
Saints coach Jim Haslett meanwhile was bewildered following the loss. A normally fiery press conference presence, Coach Haslett was at a loss to explain his team's erratic play. He told the team's home town paper, the Times-Picayune, "We have no injuries to report but there's a lot of pride hurt in that room. I'm surprised. I haven't seen us play like that before." No one had really seen the Patriots play like that before, either, but it set a tone that carried New England to its first Super Bowl victory.
While the game-plan against Carolina may differ, the physical approach will not. The Patriots are going up against an opponent in the Panthers that, like the Saints in '01, considers itself among the most physical in the league. But if the Patriots can do to them what they did to the Saints in 2001, then New England has a good chance of bringing home a second title in three years.