Giant task awaits Pats


NEW ORLEANS - The blueprint for beating the St. Louis Rams is already out there.

The New York Giants showed how, in effect, 11 years ago when they dismantled the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle offense in another war-time Super Bowl. New York dominated Buffalo with a power running game and swarming third-down defense, sending the Bills to a 20-19 upset defeat in Super Bowl XXV.

The Giants' best defense turned out to be a clock-eating offense.

The defensive coordinator on that Giants team was none other than Bill Belichick, now the head coach of the New England Patriots, who will attempt to re-create history tonight against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

What worked once against a cutting-edge offense might be the Patriots' only chance of emerging from the Superdome with the Lombardi Trophy.

The Rams (16-2) are prohibitive 14-point favorites against the Patriots (13-5), the third-highest spread in Super Bowl history. They've already beaten New England once this season, a 24-17 decision in Foxboro, Mass., in which the Rams rolled up an overwhelming 482-230 advantage in total yards.

That's the place to start for Belichick.

"The first thing I told the team when we got together Tuesday night is that if the Rams throw for 400 yards and if we score 10 points offensively, we're going to be in trouble," Belichick said.

"We're going to have to play better. That's the key for our football team against St. Louis. We have to play better than the last time we played them. They won because they outplayed us."

Rams MVP quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 401 yards, tearing up New England's zone defense. The NFL's best running back, Marshall Faulk, had 153 total yards as well, and still the Rams only won by seven.

St. Louis coach Mike Martz was prescient afterward when he told his team that the Patriots were a Super Bowl-caliber team. Their stunning upset of top-seeded Pittsburgh in the AFC title game proved him correct.

Can the Rams' prolific offense be broken down by the Patriots?

"Absolutely," Martz said. "There are just so many things you can do out of a personnel grouping, and Bill Belichick does a great job in not looking specifically at what you do, but the overall theme of what you do.

"He understands the concept and the weakness of it, and as soon as you line up, you can almost predict that he is going to attack your Achilles' heel. And he does. He did that when we played them last time."

Belichick sees some similarities between these Rams and those Bills of 1990, but he sees some critical differences, too.

"The Bills' offense was based on speed and plays run quickly," he said. "It was an up-tempo offense. They were racing to the line of scrimmage to get the next play called. They were very seldom in anything more than one formation ... one formation, only a handful of plays.

"The Rams use multiple groups, give you a ton of formations, groups, motion and shifting. A lot of times, they shift in motion on the same play. ... There are so many looks and so many things to prepare for, in that standpoint, the preparation is at the opposite end of the spectrum than Buffalo."

An equally critical part of that equation is the Patriots' offense. The Patriots have managed just one touchdown in each of their two playoff games, and haven't had the luxury of a running game. Running back Antowain Smith, who averaged 4 yards a carry in the regular season, is averaging 3.2 in the postseason.

It's possible that quarterback Tom Brady can control the clock with short passes, his specialty. But sooner or later, the Patriots will need to run the ball.

And the key to a New England ground game may lie in its physical offensive line. The Patriots' smallest lineman is left tackle Matt Light (305 pounds), who'll face the Rams' quickest pass rusher, Grant Wistrom.

Across the board, New England averages 314 pounds on the offensive line. The Rams' smallish, quick defensive front averages 288. Muscle vs. quickness?

Free safety Kim Herring, who played on the Ravens' Super Bowl champions a year ago before signing as a free agent with St. Louis, said that no team has been able to run the ball against the Rams for an entire game.

"Tampa Bay did a good job in the second half running when it had to," Herring said. "But for the whole game, there hasn't been one team this year that's done it.

"A lot of teams have tried to do it, also. We understand what the Giants did to the Bills in 1990. But we think we have a better defense [than Buffalo], and we think our offense is better, too."

Big Easy?, Eight Super Bowls have been played in New Orleans, with nearly each one a blowout:

Year Stadium Result

1970 Tulane Kan. City 23, Minnesota 7

1972 Tulane Dallas 24, Miami 3

1975 Tulane Pittsburgh 16, Minnesota 6

1978 Superdome Dallas 27, Denver 10

1981 Superdome Oakland 27, Phila. 10

1986 Superdome Chicago 46, N. England 10

1990 Superdome San Fran. 55, Denver 10

1997 Superdome Green Bay 35, N. England 21

Average score 31.6-9.6

Game data

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. St. Louis Rams (16-2) What: Super Bowl XXXVI

Where: Superdome, New Orleans

When: Today, 6:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Rams by 14

Inside: Statistics, rosters, keys to the game, Ken Murray's scouting report and more. [Page 8d]

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