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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Cats and Pats will get defensive about their efforts to win the Lombardi Trophy

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

HOUSTON - Will today s 38th edition of the Super Bowl be a 6-6 tie heading into overtime?

Probably not, but defense seems to dictate in the NFL these days, and it s nothing new to the Super Bowl.

Remember Tampa Bay s five interceptions last year? Remember Ray Lewis and the Ravens?

Today s favorite, New England, came up with three turnovers two years ago and turned them into 17 points in a 20-17 upset of St. Louis.

“Offense sells tickets; defense wins championships,” said Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, sounding a charge that s old as the hills but has never been more relevant, at least on paper, than it will be today when the Panthers and Patriots mix it up on Super Sunday.

Two of the NFL s finest and most physical defenses have touched down here in the shadow of Mission Control and, said Carolina tackle Kris Jenkins, “I think it s going to be a street fight. The two teams have the same philosophy. It s not about superstars going out and catching fancy passes; it s who will win the battle in the trenches. I really don t see a high-scoring game.”

Security will be tight at Reliant Stadium, but Homeland Defense is the battle cry of the Patriots. The Panthers unit has no fancy nickname, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Here s the regular-season tale of the tape:

New England allowed 291.6 yards and 14.9 points per game. Carolina surrendered 295.3 yards and 19 points.

In the postseason the Patriots faced the co-MVPs of the league, Steve McNair and Peyton Manning, negated their firepower and allowed Tennessee and Indianapolis just 14 points each and an average of 295 yards of offense.

The Panthers choked Dallas on 204 total yards, saddled Marc Bulger with a meager 53.9 passer rating and allowed host St. Louis just 64 yards on the ground, then invaded Philadelphia and won the NFC title by a 14-3 score. Eagle quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Koy Detmer had a combined passer rating of 23.6, that dismal number reflecting four Carolina interceptions.

The lowest point total in Super Bowl history is 21 - the Miami Dolphins beat Washington 14-7 to cap their unbeaten 1972 season.

Could that record be threatened by today s two defenses?

The offenses might have something to say about it. After all, with Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster and a big ol offensive line, the Panthers finished seventh in the NFL in rushing yardage this season. And Tom Brady and a deep group of oft-underrated Patriot receivers were a top-10 passing team.

But these are defensive teams coached by defensive coaches - New England s Bill Belichick and Carolina s John Fox cut their teeth and forged their reputations on that side of the ball.

“At the end of the day I think we both play well, not just against yards but in allowing points,” Fox said. “There are two different styles, but the end results are the same.”

Kindred souls, at least in terms of productivity. But, as Fox said, the teams do it in different ways based on their respective strengths.

CAROLINA

For the Panthers it starts with what might be the best front four in the NFL - ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers and tackles Jenkins and Buckner. With those four leading the way, Carolina has compiled 50 sacks worth 286 yards in losses and held 10 opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing.

While the New England defense is forged around a complex system, Buckner claims the Panthers just pin back their ears and go after people.

“We re just a hard-nosed, in-your-face defense,” the veteran said. “If I m in a fight I want to hit you first. There s no guesswork. We just line up, put our hands on the ground and go 100 miles an hour with 11 guys flying to the person with the ball.”

The linebacking corps, headed by Dan Morgan, who has shaken off an early-season injury and really elevated his play in the postseason, is mobile and perhaps the area of greatest improvement since a 1-15 record in 2001.

“We have a really fast defense, a physical defense,” said Morgan, who has 47 tackles in the last four games. “Coach Fox brought a scheme that turns the linebackers loose to get after people. That s what we didn t have two years ago. We kind of sat back and waited to see what teams were going to do against us instead of attacking.”

Carolina is particularly strong front and back. A secondary sparked of late by rookie Ricky Manning has 12 interceptions in the last four games. Manning is joined by fellow corner Reggie Howard, a solid cover man, strong safety Mike Minter and free safety Deon Grant, the last line of defense. Grant has 127 tackles and four picks this season.

“You have seen us play the Cowboys, the Rams and the Eagles in the last three games, so you know what our secondary can do,” said Minter, who has 149 tackles and five interceptions. “You know how physical we can be. It s going to be fun to see the two secondaries match up and see who comes out with the hardest hits.”

Key match-up: New England rookie center Dan Koppen (6-2, 296) vs. Pro-Bowler Jenkins (6-4, 315), the Panthers dominant lineman. “Man, he s tough,” Koppen said. “He has great athletic ability for a man of his size. If he can get in the gap and penetrate, he can control what an offense tries to do.” Also, Jenkins height could affect Patriot QB Tom Brady s view of the field.

NEW ENGLAND

While Carolina s defense is front and back loaded, the Patriots are strongest in the middle, with a linebacking corps that comprises full-tilt Tedy Bruschi, precise tackler Roman Phifer, versatile ex-Buckeye Mike Vrabel and the best of them all, Willie McGinest, who should torment Panther QB Jake Delhomme on the rush and in coverage.

“We are interchangeable players, especially at linebacker,” Bruschi sad. “We can rush the passer, drop back into coverage or play man-to-man. It s a complex system, but we can handle it or we wouldn t be here.”

The Patriots play a 3-4, where Ted Washington shines at nose tackle. And they ll move linebackers and line up in a 4-3. In obvious passing situations, they ll sometimes go with two down linemen. You just never know with Belichick.

While the linebackers are kings, this is not to ignore tackle Richard Seymour, who is every bit as good as Carolina s Jenkins, and a physical secondary that stars Pro Bowler Ty Law, underrated corner Tyrone Poole and safety Rodney Harrison, the team s key free-agent signing who led the Pats with 140 tackles. He s a ferocious hitter and, with Washington, sparked New England s improvement against the run.

Key match-up: New England team-style defense vs. Stephen Davis. Only one running back, Clinton Portis of Denver in early November, rushed for more than 100 yards against the Patriots this season. Davis has run for 1,710 yards in the equivalent of 16 games, including playoffs. The Panthers passing game is decent, but if the Pats shut down Davis, they win. And they know it.



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