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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Super Bowl: Tough pick but in the end it will be ...


HOUSTON - The Old Swami hates reality TV, but really, really likes the Carolina Panthers. Really.

We like how coach John Fox brought an edge, a toughness, to a bunch of Average Joes and turned a 1-15 team into a Super Bowl finalist in two years.

We like how the Panthers have no Fear Factor, and wear the underdog role so well.

We are impressed by the inspiration they take from two Survivors, linebackers coach Sam Mills and linebacker Mark Fields, who are playing serious games against intestinal cancer and Hodgkin s disease, respectively.

You know, they built a statue of Sam Mills outside Ericsson Stadium, although he played only three seasons with the Panthers. Owner Jerry Richardson did it because he hoped his young franchise and its players would become everything Mills was during his career - relentless, resilient, tough, able to overcome long odds.

That s what the Panthers have indeed become, and the Old Swami loves their pea-pickin hearts. But the Super Bowl is truly reality TV. So let s be real. No way do the Panthers beat New England today.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has had two weeks to wave his magic wand over a game plan, so with all due respect to Fox, that ain t a fair fight.

Plus, it s hard to pick against Tom Brady. His numbers are far better than people give him credit for.

The Panthers will make a game of it, no question. It ll be close. It ll be defensive. It will probably be decided late. But it will be New England 20, Carolina 13.

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