Head to Head

“Super Bowl XXXVIII belongs to the Panthers and their defense.” – Anthony Gagliano

The beauty of the Carolina Panthers is that the names don’t jump off the page at you — Rucker, Morgan, Jenkins. They lull you in, but don’t say you haven’t been warned when they walk off with the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.

Defenses have long been the catalysts to Super Bowl champions. Going back to the Steel Curtain, champions have been built on stopping the opposition. America’s Team had Roger Staubach at the helm, but it was Randy White and Harvey Martin who walked out of Super Bowl XII with MVP honors. When the Cowboys returned to prominence in the ’90s, Larry Brown stole the show from Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX.

A la the Baltimore Ravens of three years ago, the Panthers success is predicated on a hard-knock defense. Kris Jenkins is a vacuum in the middle at defensive tackle, where running backs get swallowed up. His presence allows the linebackers, where former first-rounder Dan Morgan from Miami roams, space to make plays unimpeded by blockers. If Jenkins wasn’t enough on the line, Rucker brings pressure off the corner, accounting for 12 of Carolina’s 40 sacks. That was enough to earn him a nod to join Jenkins in the Pro Bowl.

And rest assured that if one of those three doesn’t rise to the performance someone else will pick up the slack. In the NFC Championship Game, Ricky Manning Jr. played hero with three interceptions. Some unheralded player from Carolina is going to have a big game, becoming this year’s Brown or Dexter Jackson.

New England possesses the edge in experience and an imposing winning streak, but that’s not all it takes to win the title. Carolina strikes me as similar to the Ravens or the 1985 Chicago Bears. As in their victory over the Eagles, the Panthers aren’t going to pound New England with an offensive explosion, but then again that was what Tennessee and Indianapolis were supposed to do, right?

No, the Panthers have a much more sound philosophy. Their defensive line is going to make the Patriots completely one-dimensional, annihilating their ground game. Then, John Fox is going to calmly allow Jake Delhomme to ride the shoulders of Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster and the Carolina ground attack. When the situation calls for a punt, that’s what he’ll do. The field position game suits Fox and Carolina to a T. So, ever so slowly, the Panthers will methodically move the ball into the end zone once or twice, enough to beat to New England. You still won’t know their names, but you’ll remember the Carolina Panthers, Super Bowl Champions.

“Tom Brady will lead the Patriots to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII.” – Adam Becker

With a 5-0 career postseason record and a Super Bowl ring to his record after just four years, Tom Brady is well on his way to becoming one the greatest playoff quarterbacks in NFL history.

Brady became a starter for New England in the third game of the 2001 season, just his second season in the league, when then-Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with a season-ending injury. Brady led the team to a division title, two close playoff victories and a Super Bowl XXXVI win over the Rams, in which Brady earned MVP honors.

While he may never throw 40 touchdowns or pass for 5,000 yards in a season, if he continues to lead his team to postseason victories, Brady will one day warrant comparison with the greatest playoff performer in NFL history, Joe Montana. He wins games in the clutch and brings an attitude to the huddle that often carries the Patriots to victory.

Brady can’t do it alone, though. Like Montana, who rode Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense to glory, Brady has a mastermind coach calling the shots. Bill Belichick has created a monster of a defense from a bunch of no-name players. Most people couldn’t name three players in New England’s defense if you spotted them Ty Law and Willie McGinest. But for three years, Belichick has had a ferocious, determined defense to complement a patient, careful offense, both of which reflect their coach’s hard-working, silent demeanor.

The Carolina Panthers have a great defense, one that went on the road to beat high-powered offenses in Indianapolis and St. Louis. But intimidating defenses didn’t matter to Brady, who led the Pats to a pair of victories over both the Dolphins and Titans this season, two teams with overpowering defenses. Besides, no matter how good Carolina is at stopping opposing offenses, Belichick and the New England defense will be one step ahead of them. Look no further than New England’s dominance over previously red-hot Indianapolis and league co-MVP Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship game.

Prior to the Colts game, I thought Brady was among the most overrated players in the NFL and that he had simply rode a great defense to victory time after time, and, even now, I am not entirely convinced otherwise. But until he loses a big game, Brady has to be considered a top-notch winner.

People have been waiting for Panthers QB Jake Delhomme to fall back to Earth, but he continues to surprise. The Patriots will remind the world, however, why Delhomme spent the first four years of his career as a backup who never played more than four games in a season. He has never stood on a stage as large as the one awaiting him on Sunday, and it will be a struggle for him not to lose this game for his defense.

And on top of that, I’ve finally learned not to bet against Tom Brady in the winter.