Super Bowl XXXVIII: Looking For An Edge

The New England Patriots do not seem to have the karmic edge heading into this Super Bowl that they had before the Super Bowl two years ago. In fact, that particular edge might go to the Carolina Panthers.

Perhaps the most poignant example is the team's emotional connection to lost or wounded coaches: in August 2001, the Patriots suffered the stunning loss of their quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, to a heart attack. In August 2003, the Panthers were shocked to hear their linebackers coach, Sam Mills, reveal that he was battling cancer. Like Rehbein for the 2001 Patriots, Mills has become a rallying point for the team.

Of lighter note, the Panthers have other miscellaneous factors in their favor. Carolina receiver Steve Smith beat New England receiver Troy Brown in a video game match-up of the two teams on Wednesday. The team that won this video game has gone on to win the actual Super Bowl eight straight times. One of those wins was Brown's victory over the Rams' Isaac Bruce before Super Bowl XXXVI, which, sure enough, the Patriots won.

Similarly, there is a photo session during the week before the Super Bowl in which each team's coach poses before the championship Lombardi Trophy. Before Super Bowl XXXVI, Rams head coach Mike Martz reveled in his pre-game appearance with the trophy, coddling it and holding it up.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, however, stayed far away from it and laid not a finger on it. That respect for the symbol of what was not yet his was itself representative of the focused, win-first attitude he set for the entire Patriots team. And the Patriots upset the heavily favored Rams.

This year, Coach Belichick repeated his respectful performance around the trophy. But Carolina head coach John Fox did the exact same thing; he did not make Martz's mistake of appearing to celebrate too soon. Both coaches are demonstrating tunnel vision, avoiding the tempting distractions to concentrate on the job at hand, and both lead single-minded teams.

So if the Patriots cannot rely on any of these subtleties for an edge, where can they turn to find an advantage?

Start with Coach Belichick himself. Since 2001, he has won more games than any other coach in the league and boasts a 44-25 record. He is 5-0 in playoff games at the helm of the Patriots. He has three Super Bowl rings, including two as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants and one as the head coach of the Patriots. Coach Fox, by comparison, coached in the Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator with the Giants, who lost to the Baltimore Ravens three years ago.

The Patriots went 10-0 at home this year and the AFC representative is considered the home team this year's Super Bowl (alternating conferences every year). They will be wearing their home blue jerseys just as they did in their winning Super Bowl two years ago.

But if this is considered a road game, the Patriots went 6-2 on the road, and one of their wins came in the very arena where the Super Bowl will be played, Houston's Reliant Stadium. The Patriots beat the Houston Texans 23-20 in overtime in November.

The Panthers also played the Texans in Houston, so perhaps neither team has an advantage in terms of comfort with the surroundings. But unlike the Patriots, the Panthers lost to the Texans 14-10. The Texans ran one of two 3-4 style defenses that the Panthers faced this season and the Panthers lost both times they faced such a defense (Atlanta was the other, and the Falcons beat Carolina 20-14 in early December). They will face their third when they play the Patriots and their 3-4 defense on Sunday.

The Patriots are riding a 14 game winning streak. They are the first team since the Dolphins' perfect season of 1972, to win 14 consecutive games in the same season. Eight of New England's wins came against teams that won 10 or more games in 2003. And they have won every time they've taken the field since September 28, 2003.

Looking back at the regular season, the Patriots played eight teams this year that the Panthers also played. Against these common opponents, the Patriots went 7-1, while the Panthers went 4-4. It should be noted, though, that these numbers include the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, two teams that the Patriots beat in the regular season while the Panthers lost to both.

However, the Panthers beat those same teams in the playoffs. Both the Patriots and Panthers also beat Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and the Giants, while Carolina lost to Houston and Tennessee. New England lost to Washington while Carolina beat the Redskins. All told, including playoffs, the Patriots are 9-1 against common opponents, while the Panthers are 6-4.

This is not to say the Panthers have a decided disadvantage. They are peaking at just the right time. Carolina's already-strong defense, which was 8th in the league during the regular season, rose to second-best among the playoff teams over the past month. Carolina went from a minus-5 turnover differential in the regular season to an opportunistic plus-8 in the playoffs. But the Patriots allowed the fewest points in the league this year and led the NFL with 29 interceptions.

Speaking of defense, the Patriots went after defensive tackle Brentson Buckner in 2001 when he was a free agent from Pittsburgh. But he opted to go to Carolina. It may have seemed to him, with the Patriots winning the Super Bowl later that year, that he made a mistake, but he has now made it to the Super Bowl his own, with the Panthers.

Carolina certainly has a strong running game, and that area is considered to be a sizeable advantage for the Panthers. But while the Panthers piled up nearly 500 more yards on the ground this year than did the Patriots, the Patriots scored as many rushing touchdowns this year, nine, as the Panthers.

What is it with the number 5? It seems to have recurred throughout the Patriots' season with both positive and negative outcomes. For instance, the Buffalo Bills hadn't beaten the Patriots in 5 tries before their 31-0 dismantling of New England in week one this year.

The New York Jets hadn't lost to the Patriots in New England in 5 games before the Patriots beat them in Foxboro 23-16 in week three. And before the October 16 victory over the Dolphins, it had been 5 years since the Patriots won in Miami (and they never had won in Miami in September and October).

Maybe there's something to that number 5. Now, Tom Brady is 5-0 in playoffs and Coach Belichick 5-1 lifetime in the playoffs (5-0 with New England).

So, the question is, does this strange re-appearance of the number 5 apply to the number 15? The Patriots will be going for their 15th consecutive victory this Sunday. Only then will it be clear whether either team has an edge.

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