Two of them are on offense. During the regular season, the Panthers' offense ranked 16th out of 32 teams in overall production, but they also had the 7th best rushing offense. Carolina only improved as the season wore on, however, and when it counted most in the post-season, the Panthers rose to the 5th overall offense (out of 12 playoff teams) and 2nd-best rushing attack.
The ground game is the Panthers' strength because of their two star offensive players, running back Stephen Davis (#48) and DeShaun Foster (#20). Either one could be a starter on most NFL teams, although that might be news to the Washington Redskins, who let Davis go in free agency last year (despite Davis's three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and two Pro Bowl appearances in his seven years with Washington).
The Panthers quickly snatched up Davis and with him scored one of year's personnel coups. The 6-foot, 230-pound Davis rewarded Carolina by putting up the best performance in his eight-year career, a franchise-record 1,444 rushing yards. Davis's output was 7th-best among NFL running backs in 2003. He threw in eight rushing touchdowns, too. (For comparison, New England's lead back, Antowain Smith, rushed for just 642 yards and 3 touchdowns, good for 30th in the league.)
Davis suffered a strained quadriceps muscle during the playoffs, but still managed to carry the ball 19 times for 76 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game. After having two weeks between that game and the Super Bowl this Sunday, it is highly likely that Davis will play against the Patriots. (Davis is not on the Panthers' injury report; a full look at the injury report is provided below.)
Davis's backup, DeShaun Foster, is hardly a backup. A second-round draft pick in 2002, Foster was tearing-up the league during the preseason (looking like the early leader for rookie of the year consideration) before tearing up his knee. He was lost for the season but returned healthy in 2003. He played in 14 games this year, starting two, compiling 429 yards. His only regular season touchdowns came on two receptions; his first rushing touchdown as a professional came against the Eagles in the Conference Championship game.
The 6-foot, 220 pound Foster can pound the ball almost as effectively as Davis, and he is probably faster than Davis at least in reaching the edge or cutting back. Either one represents a significant challenge for the Patriots, even with their defense ranked 4th against the run this season.
The Panthers don't just line up and pound it, either. They threw in some unusual offensive wrinkles against Philadelphia, including a variation on the old "wing" formation. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning had two tight ends line up in the backfield, one on either side of the lone running back (either Davis or Foster); the tight ends then plow forward at the snap much like fullbacks with the rusher allowed to follow either or find a hole of his own. Against the Eagles, Davis got no less than 6 yards per carry out of this formation.
The Patriots are going to have to find an answer for Davis and Foster as well as the schemes the Panthers use to maximize their two stars. Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson summed up their defensive game plan: "For us to have any chance, we have got to find a way to stop their running game."
Davis and Foster are the first two of the team's six stars. The other four are on defense, specifically the defensive line. The defense is the strength of the Carolina team and the defensive line is the strength of the defense.
Inside are defensive tackles Kris Jenkins (#77) and Brentson Buckner (#99). Combined they weigh 645 pounds. Jenkins is a first-team Pro Bowler this year who can single-handedly disrupt opposing offenses. He had five sacks during the regular season plus another in the playoffs, while Buckner had one-and-a-half sacks against the Eagles alone.
On the edges the Panthers have two star defensive ends. Julius Peppers (#90) is stout enough at 283 pounds to hold up against the run, but his specialty is rushing the passer, as his seven regular season sacks (plus another in the playoffs) attest. Right defensive end Mike Rucker (#93) is even lighter at 275 pounds, but led the team in sacks with 12 and his 73 tackles put him first among the team's already formidable defensive line. Rucker was also recently chosen for the Pro Bowl by NFL Coach Any Reid.
These four are the teeth of the defense. "They're a very unique group in the sense that (any one of the four) can beat you," said Patriots left tackle Matt Light.
The statistics back up that sentiment. According to nfl.com, the Panthers ranked seventh in sacks per pass attempt during the regular season and, in three playoff games, the front four combined for 30 tackles and an average of four-and-a-half sacks while helping limit opposing offenses to an average of 91 rushing yards.
The Patriots are going to have to find a way to pay attention to a superstar like Jenkins without providing the others an opportunity to make plays.
As Rucker explains, "Jenkins is a big guy who demands a double team. And if the ends are getting doubled, then the tackles (Jenkins and Buckner) are getting some one-on-ones" that can exploit.
Like most linemen, these four do not get much glory. Yet Carolina's defensive line makes up just about all of the team's star power.
The Patriots, meanwhile, will match them with about as overlooked a group of offensive linemen as the league has to offer. New England's only star, center/guard Damien Woody, was lost for the rest of the playoffs with a knee injury suffered (or aggravated) during the team's win over Tennessee.
Left tackle Matt Light is a highly accomplished, although rarely mentioned, player who managed to successfully take over the position from the great Bruce Armstrong. Right guard Joe Andruzzi was picked up as a street free agent in 2000 and achieved some fame through his emotional, public support of his New York firemen brothers.
But Russ Hochstein (Woody's replacement), rookie center Dan Koppen, and right tackle and former practice squad player Tom Ashworth are about as anonymous a group of starters as the Super Bowl has ever known.
They can handle being overlooked, or having their little-known names mispronounced (it's "HOKE-steen" not "HOCK-steen" and "KOPE-en" not "KOPP-en"). Just don't call them anything but tough. They will have to be to handle Carolina's star front four.
Injury Report and Other News
Both teams released their injury reports on Wednesday. All eyes have been on Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was limped off the field in the AFC Championship game with a suspected calf injury, but he has been seen walking around normally at the team's Houston facilities. He is listed as probable (75% chance to play) and will likely be in the starting line-up on Sunday. But there are some surprises on the injury list, as well:
The Panthers, meanwhile, said that they have no injuries to report. Running back Stephen Davis was the only one expected to be listed with his quadriceps injury but he is apparently fine.
One other bit of news: Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown will face-off on Wednesday night against Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith in a video game contest on a Play Station II system. This is an extremely important event – since its inception eight seasons ago, the winner of this promotional event has gone on to win the Super Bowl every time. Check carefully on Thursday for the results.
On an historical note, Troy Brown beat St. Louis Rams receiver Isaac Bruce in this event before the 2001 Super Bowl, which the Patriots went on to win despite being 14-point underdogs.