HOUSTON - There are the personnel packages, multiple-receiver sets, no-huddle and two-minute offenses, but the Carolina Panthers' best chance of winning the Super Bowl tonight against the New England Patriots is by outmuscling them at the line of scrimmage.
As complicated as NFL head coaches and coordinators make football seem, the game is usually won in its simplest form: running the ball, and stopping the run.
If Carolina beats New England, it won't be an upset. The Patriots probably will win because they have the most balanced team in the NFL, and their quarterback, Tom Brady, can make more plays than Carolina's Jake Delhomme. But the Panthers' strength up front is a concern.
"Any time you can go into places like St. Louis and Philadelphia, beat them physically and win, then it's a cause for concern," said Patriots cornerback Ty Law. "We know what they want to do, and they know what they want to do. Something has to give."
Carolina center Jeff Mitchell has been in this situation before. When the Ravens beat the New York Giants in the January 2001 Super Bowl, he started for the Ravens with guards Mike Flynn and Edwin Mulitalo, and tackles Harry Swayne and Jonathan Ogden.
He sees a lot of similarities between that group and his new linemates (guards Jeno James and Kevin Donnalley, and tackles Jordan Gross and Todd Steussie).
Both teams ran to the left more because they are more physical there as opposed to more finesse on the right. Both teams had overpowering left guards (James for the Panthers; Mulitalo for the Ravens) and Pro Bowl-caliber left tackles (Steussie and Ogden).
The Ravens' missing component in 2000 was 240-pound running back Jamal Lewis. The Panthers' missing component in 2003 has been 230-pound halfback Stephen Davis.
"We have no one like J.O. [Ogden]. He is a freak, and Steussie looks up to him," Mitchell said. "He has got to be getting bored because he never gets challenged. But our left guard is a beast just like he was in Baltimore. With both groups, you couldn't say we were huge, you couldn't say we were small, but you knew going into the game we were going to run the ball."
But there are differences. Carolina's running game is more sophisticated. The Panthers run the same plays over and over, but use different formations and personnel groups. The Ravens used to run basically stretch plays, but the Panthers run counters and inside and outside traps. They use a lot of motion and pull guards, tackles and centers.
And they are committed to running the ball, having been only one of six teams to run more than they threw this season. As the season wore on, the Panthers threw less and less each game, with only 14 passes in the conference championship against the Eagles.
"We ran the ball well in Baltimore, but like any offensive coordinator, if it's not working, we got away from it," Mitchell said. "It's not that way here. We stick with it unless we get way down. In Baltimore, it wasn't a priority. Here, it's our bread and butter."
The Panthers, who have averaged nearly 160 yards rushing in the postseason, have a serious challenge in that New England was No. 4 against the run in the regular season. But if the Panthers can run, they keep the ball out of Brady's hands and also neutralize New England's greatest weapon, coach Bill Belichick, who can tear apart any passing offense by disguising coverages and blitz packages. He ousted Tennessee's Steve McNair and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning.
The Patriots' main strength is in the secondary, where they have Law and fellow cornerback Tyrone Poole, who each intercepted six passes this season. The Patriots also have rookie standouts Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel in a secondary that helped lead the league in interceptions with 29.
But what if Carolina doesn't throw? What if it can run the ball effectively and keep the Patriots off balance with rushes on third downs when New England inserts four or five specialists?
If the Patriots bring up safety Rodney Harrison in run support, then that leaves Law or Poole one-on-one with receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith.
"In Baltimore, we won a lot of games with our defense," Mitchell said. "When you went into the locker room, you didn't feel like you did a whole lot because there wasn't much offensive production. We're playing on both sides of the ball. We have receivers and a quarterback who make plays and have brought us back late in games."
On the defensive side, the Panthers have perhaps the best line in the league. Right tackle Kris Jenkins is a stud, and he and fellow tackle Brentson Buckner can penetrate and cause problems in the middle. Both ends, Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, are good pass rushers with Rucker having more power than Peppers.
All four are strong and athletic. They have the power to cave in pockets and run down quarterbacks, especially against a New England offensive line that's not overpowering. The Patriots like to use the three-stop dropback with Brady, and it will be interesting to see if the Panthers can get to him, or at least knock him down a few times.
Carolina probably will have cornerbacks Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin play more press coverage at the line of scrimmage to tie up receivers Deion Branch, David Givens, Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson on short timing patterns.
"It's got to be a physical game," said Panthers safety Deon Grant. "We have to make sure that when we deliver the punch, we can't miss. I can't put everything on their short passing game because they have two really good running backs in Kevin Faulk and Antowain Smith; they know how to break tackles. We have to bring the wood on tackles and jamming them at the line of scrimmage. We have to turn this into a physical game."
That's the Panthers' style. That's basically their only hope to offset the Patriots' balance. It's football at its most basic level.
"You know how those guys were in Baltimore," said Carolina strength coach Jerry Simmons, who was the Ravens' strength coach from 1996 until 1999. "Zeus [Orlando Brown], Wally [Wally Williams], Black [Jeff Blackshear], all of those guys were as strong as any guys I've been around. Our guys aren't quite that strong, but we're not far from it. I'll put them up with anybody. They're all strong, well-conditioned and can move.
"That D-line is amazing. I haven't been around a group like that ever in my career," Simmons added. "Peppers is a phenom, and he hasn't gotten his strength to where it needs to be because he played basketball in college. Kris Jenkins is a man-child, Buck has great strength, and Rucker has the combination of speed and strength. All of them can run.
"Up front, on both sides of the ball, we're as strong as anybody, and it has to come through for us today."