Patriots Know Carolina Is Dangerous

The Carolina Panthers still have a few weapons two years removed from their Super Bowl matchup against the Patriots. Despite losing Mushin Muhammad the Panthers still have some playmakers on both sides of the ball in Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith, Stephen Davis, Julius Peppers and Mike Minter, giving New England's head coach Bill Belichick cause for concern.

Patriots Know Carolina Is Dangerous
By Staff

The Patriots are a steady bunch. Tough circumstances? No problem. Favorable situation? Perfect. On the road? Big deal. At home? Virtually unbeatable. But this Sunday, they head to Carolina to take on a Panthers team that is already desperate.

After losing their home opener, the Panthers are 0-1 with the two-time defending world champions paying a visit, which puts them in danger of falling to 0-2 with both losses coming at home.

Never mind that Carolina is already motivated by its Super Bowl XXXVIII loss to New England; it's now in a situation where it has to win. That makes this a difficult spot for New England, which must find a way to match the Panthers intensity while also keeping a strong running game and clutch quarterback in check.

The Panthers missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record in their Super Bowl swan song, but were ravaged by injuries early in the season and were 1-7 at mid-point before turning things around and finishing 7-9 including a string of five straight wins in the second half. It is that finish that Bill Belichick is using to motivate his team this week.

"A rough year?" he questioned. "They won seven (actually six) of their last eight games. If you look at the second half of the season, that's no rough year. They were the best team in football the second half of the season in the NFC, (they were) as good as anybody. I saw a lot of them in the off-season knowing we had them early here and they look pretty good to me.

"They had a lot of guys hurt. They had four different running backs. Steve Smith was out. They had some injuries on defense and they still won (six) of their last eight games. That's with guys gaining 100 yards every week that I'm sure, other than the fantasy football fans, probably a lot of people haven't even heard of them. I think it's a very talented football team. I think they are very well coached. They can run it. They can throw it. They are (really) good on defense and they are good on special teams."

Of course it sounds like Belichick himself agrees with the Sports Illustrated prediction that has Carolina winning Super Bowl XL. But he's trying to get his Patriots to play better this week than they did last when they stumbled around a bit while beating the Raiders.

New England did a good job pressuring Kerry Collins in that game and forcing him to throw several passes away to avoid sacks, but Panthers QB Jake Delhomme is an excellent decision-maker who dissected the Patriots defense in the second half of Super Bowl XXXVIII. He frustrated the Patriots rush late in that game and nearly guided his team to a shootout win. Much like Tom Brady has in New England, Delhomme has given the Panthers offensive stability.

"He's a good decision maker and can get the ball down the field unless you take that away and then he'll take what you give him," Belichick said. "He runs Dan Henning's offense very well and it's an extensive system. He's tough and he gives them a competitive edge that affects the rest of the team."

Typically, Carolina is a run first team, but it would not be shocking to see the Panthers attack through the air from the outset to test the Patriots secondary while then turning to its strong running game, one in which the Patriots did a decent job defending two years ago.

It looks like Patriots cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Chad Scott will not play while Duane Starks will return to the lineup. It's likely that Randall Gay and Asante Samuel will start on the corners with Starks probably playing as the nickel back. That will leave either Guss Scott or rookie Ellis Hobbs as the dime back.

That group will face the talented Steve Smith, who caught eight passes for 138 yards and a score last week and was a couple of inches from having an absolutely mammoth day. While Muhsin Muhammad left in free agency, Keary Colbert has emerged as the No. 2 with Ricky Proehl as the three.

"Colbert played the X when Smith was hurt last year while Muhammad played the Z," Belichick said in reference to the specific receiver roles. "Now Colbert is back playing his more natural spot as the Z while nemesis Ricky Proehl is still a thorn in everybody's side."

It was Proehl that caught game-tying TD passes against the Patriots late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI (for the Rams) and XXXVIII for the Panthers only to see Tom Brady guide game-winning drives in the final minute of both. It also was Proehl who declared before Super Bowl XXXVI that a dynasty was to be born. He was right even if he had the team wrong.

Belichick recognizes how important this game is for Carolina but said his team will treat it as treats every game. "We expect their best but we expect that every week from every opponent," he said.

SERIES HISTORY: 4th meeting. Patriots lead 2-1. Carolina beat the Patriots back in 1995 in their inaugural season while losing 38-6 to New England in the final game of the 2001 season. The teams also met in Super Bowl XXXVIII with New England winning 32-29. New England is 13-4 in its last 17 road games including the postseason.

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