Teams brace for defensive showdown


HOUSTON -- Somewhere between mayhem and larceny, the Super Bowl will be decided here tonight.

It could come down to the Carolina Panthers' front four, a unit that packages uncommon quickness with sheer power in its rush to the quarterback.

Or it could come down to the New England Patriots' elite secondary, a group that fears no receiver and gives no quarter.

It almost certainly will come down to the more physical defensive team imposing its steely will on the other side. Which quarterback will blink? Carolina's Jake Delhomme, the newcomer and relative novice, or New England's Tom Brady, the veteran who, at 26, is trying to become the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls?

The answer will dictate an upset for the Panthers or a Patriots' dynasty for the salary cap era.

As a seven-point underdog, the Panthers (14-5) spring-boarded from a 1-15 disaster two years ago to the NFC championship. This startling reversal was choreographed by John Fox in his first job as a head coach.

The Patriots (16-2) are riding a 14-game winning streak into Reliant Stadium, threatening to capture their second Lombardi Trophy in three years, thanks to the handiwork of coach Bill Belichick, a one-time failure in Cleveland but now the NFL's reigning genius.

Of such matchups are legends made. This is clearly a game for the purists who love defense, hitting and strength against strength. It is not a game for offensive fireworks. The Patriots dismissed the last of the offensive juggernauts when they eliminated the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.

In what may have been a prelude to the Super Bowl game, the Patriots shut down the Colts' best receiver, Marvin Harrison, and limited him to three harmless catches.

"We know they're going to go out and try to light our receivers up," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "And we're going to go out and try to light their receivers up."

The first defense that has power failure is the likely loser.

Intimidation is the name of this game. Both teams specialize in this rock 'em, sock 'em style of physicality. All last week, the two opponents chattered about the intimidation factor and how it will play out.

"I am not going to be intimidated," said Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. "They hit me, I'll get up, hurt or not."

There will be no gain without pain -- on either side of the ball.

"We're going to try to be physical, too," said Patriots tight end Christian Fauria. "It's not like we're pushovers. We think of ourselves as a physical offense. They're definitely going to make some plays. But we have to keep them to a minimum and try to play mistake-free football.

"I'm not saying they're the best defense we've faced, but they're right up there with the top three."

The Panthers rely on a formula that Fox brought with him from the New York Giants. He built his team around an outstanding defensive line that features the power of tackle Kris Jenkins and the speed of end Julius Peppers.

Carolina was able to generate a pass rush with its front four most of the season, but in the playoffs, the Panthers have leaned heavily on the blitz for added pressure. The challenge is to reach Brady before he finds his rhythm in the quick, three-step drop-and-throw system of the Patriots.

But it's not as simple as a bull-rush to the quarterback.

"They don't really allow defenses to go after Brady," said Shane Burton, a reserve defensive tackle with the Panthers. "They do a lot of things like inside traps, slants, hard [snap] counts and everything else they can do to slow down the front four. We know they're going to try to do something like that against our front four."

Carolina's pass rush has allowed its suspect secondary to settle in with a rookie, Ricky Manning Jr., at one cornerback and a player acquired on waivers, Reggie Howard, at the other. Under defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, the Panthers have played a lot of press, man-to-man coverage with a two-deep zone behind it.

"They do a great job of forcing receivers into different releases," Brady said. "Ricky Manning is a guy who is always up in a receiver's face, jamming him, trying to push him out of bounds. Reggie Howard on the other side does a good job at that, too.

"If they try to aggressively jam [the Patriots' receivers] and miss, you have a chance to run down the field and hit the throw."

That translates into big plays, an element of which there may be little tonight.

The Panthers' offensive strength -- running back Stephen Davis, who averaged better than 100 rushing yards in 14 games this season -- will test a Patriots defense that has surrendered more than 100 only once. New England ranked fourth in the league in rushing defense.

Here's how Belichick looks at it: "To me, the best thing you can do is to show your opponent that they have to deal with all 11 of you, that you are a team and that everybody out there is ready, willing and able to help [his] teammate."

The Patriots resort to a diversified approach on defense. They play a three-man front in their base defense, but can go to a four- or two-man look in certain situations. Blitzes? Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, excel at drawing them up.

Sooner or later, Delhomme will have to throw the ball. He threw just 14 passes in the NFC championship victory at Philadelphia. The more he throws into the teeth of that tenacious Patriots secondary, the less chance the Panthers have of surviving.

What neither side knows going in is how the game will be officiated. The officiating crew of referee Ed Hochuli will be on the spot after AFC championship game officials pretty much let the Patriots' defensive backs mug the Colts' receivers all day.

Both teams are concerned about whether the officials will overlook calls that were made during the regular season.

"Maybe I've noticed that in some of the games," Delhomme said. "In a way, it's good because you're not calling these nitpicky things. But in another way, if it's blatant, then come on, you've got to call it."

When it comes to these two teams, it's a thin line that's easily crossed.

"I think it should be more physical," the Patriots' Harrison said. "The game should be the same all the time, don't get me wrong. But sometimes, when you're in the postseason, whether it's basketball, hockey or football, sometimes the refs have the ability to let the teams play a little more physical."

Game data

Matchup: New England Patriots (16-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (14-5)

Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston

When: Tonight, 6:25

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Patriots by 7

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