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PATRIOTS VS. PANTHERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Time: 6:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston

Records: Panthers 14-5, Patriots 16-2

Line: Patriots by 7

TEAMS GRADED ON A SCALE OF 1 TO 10 IN EACH CATEGORY, WITH 10 THE BEST.

RUSHING GAME

Panthers 8, Patriots 4

The Panthers place more emphasis on the run because of personnel. They've got one of the NFL's toughest running backs in Stephen Davis -- with DeShaun Foster as a nifty changeup back -- to compensate for the relative inexperience of quarterback Jake Delhomme. Carolina likes to play smash-mouth football, but Davis and Foster have enough speed to get outside and break big plays. Getting New England's blitzers blocked will be critical. The Panthers' offensive line is more experienced, stronger and better than the Patriots' patchwork crew, although it also has performed well. Running back Antowain Smith routinely emerges late in the season for the Patriots to give them a semblance of a run game. He is more a north-south runner who sometimes tries to use finesse. The Patriots will persist in attempting to run, even if they don't have great success, because they have to keep Carolina's front four guessing as much as possible. The Panthers need to be successful in the running game to give Delhomme's play-action passes a chance to work and to limit the opportunities the Patriots have on offense.

Key matchups: For the Panthers, center Jeff Mitchell will need some help to block 365-pound nose tackle Ted Washington. For the Patriots, left guard Russ Hochstein and center Dan Koppen have the task of controlling Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.

STAT TO REMEMBER

159.3

The per-game rushing average for the Panthers in the postseason, compared to 130.9 in the regular season.

PASSING GAME

Patriots 8, Panthers 5

The Patriots use the passing game in West Coast offense fashion as an alternative to the running game, with quarterback Tom Brady throwing short to intermediate routes, with a lot of screens and hitches. The Patriots have thrown more passes (78) in two playoff games than the Panthers (70) in three. Both teams have thrown just one interception. Despite their patchwork line, the Patriots have yet to allow Brady to be sacked in the postseason. He gets the ball away quickly. New England loves to spread the field and let Brady find mismatches against his receivers, something he is very adept at. That's where the Patriots have a big advantage, lining up against Carolina's fifth and sixth defensive backs. Deion Branch led the Patriots in catches during the regular season, but David Givens (12) and Troy Brown (nine) have been the most productive in the playoffs. Delhomme has made some big plays in the passing game, but the Panthers don't have any real threats after Steve Smith (23.1 yards average per catch, two touchdowns in the playoffs) and Muhsin Muhammad. The Panthers have converted 19 of 45 third downs in the postseason, though, for 42.2 percent.

Key matchups: For the Panthers, Smith will face Ty Law, probably the best cornerback in the league this season. For the Patriots, left tackle Matt Light, fresh off blanking the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney, gets defensive end Mike Rucker, the Panthers' leading sacker.

STAT TO REMEMBER

3

The Patriots have completed just three passes of 20 or more yards in the postseason.

RUN DEFENSE

Patriots 10, Panthers 8

The Patriots ranked fourth in the league in rushing defense, allowing just 89.6 yards per game. They have allowed just 96 a game in the playoffs. Washington is a major force in the middle and Richard Seymour had a Pro Bowl season. The flexibility of the Patriots' front seven is what makes it so effective. New England can switch easily from a three-man front to a four. It can move linebacker Mike Vrabel almost anywhere because of his athleticism. Safety Rodney Harrison almost certainly will come up to help defend the run, but the injury to inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi could hurt. With the best front four in the league, the Panthers were almost as hard to run on this season. They gave up 107.6 rushing yards a game. Jenkins and fellow defensive tackle Brentson Buckner set the table for middle linebacker Dan Morgan. Like the Patriots, the Panthers have quick linebackers and pursuit is a strength. Outside linebackers Greg Favors and Will Witherspoon are both playmakers.

Key matchups: For the Panthers, if Jenkins and Buckner occupy the Patriots' interior line, it should free up Morgan to get to Smith. For the Patriots, Seymour against left tackle Todd Steussie or left guard Jeno James will be a great battle to watch.

STAT TO REMEMBER

3.8

The average rush by the Patriots' opponents in the postseason.

PASS DEFENSE

Patriots 8, Panthers 7

Both teams have been splendid in the postseason. The Panthers have eight interceptions in the playoffs and the Patriots have five. Law and Carolina's Ricky Manning Jr. each had three picks in their respective championship games. Both teams like to be physical with the receivers -- and it would seem the Patriots got away with excessive contact in the AFC championship game against the Colts. That was how the Patriots disrupted the St. Louis Rams' vaunted passing game in the Super Bowl two years ago. New England faced 96 more passes in the regular season than Carolina's secondary did, and came up with 13 more interceptions (29-16). Patriots cornerback Tyrone Poole was originally a Carolina draft choice. Panthers cornerback Reggie Howard was acquired on waivers in 2000. The Patriots count on two rookies in the secondary -- starting free safety Eugene Wilson and nickel back Asante Samuel.

Key matchups: For the Panthers, the 5-foot-8 Manning will give away 4 inches against the 6-0 Givens. For the Patriots, Poole, 5-8, has the same problem against Muhammad, 6-2.

STAT TO REMEMBER

5

Number of Panthers with interceptions in the playoffs.

PASS RUSH

Panthers 9, Patriots 9

The Patriots probably have the most feared pressure scheme in the NFL because of the variety of blitzes defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can throw at teams. They scheme teams into confusion. Vrabel led the team with 9 1/2 sacks and Seymour had eight. Outside linebacker Willie McGinest has four in the playoffs. They also will blitz Harrison. Altogether, the Patriots had 41 sacks this season, one more than the Panthers, who got 32 1/2 from the defensive line. Rucker led the Panthers with 12, followed by Peppers (seven), Jenkins (five) and Al Wallace (five). The Panthers rarely send more than five rushers and don't have to because they always get pressure on the quarterback. Whether they can challenge Brady's quick releases will be a key factor. They have 10 sacks in the playoffs.

Key matchups: For the Panthers, Peppers will use his quickness against right tackle Tom Ashworth. For the Patriots, Vrabel ultimately will have to beat fullback Brad Hoover to get to Delhomme.

STAT TO REMEMBER

0

The Patriots haven't allowed a sack this postseason.

KICKING GAME

Panthers 7, Patriots 7

With the exception of one bad game, Carolina's John Kasay had a slightly better season than New England's Adam Vinatieri. Kasay had three fewer misses and two good kicks from 53 yards. Vinatieri's long was 47. But Vinatieri won the Super Bowl two years ago with a 48-yarder and may be the best pressure kicker in the league. The Panthers' Todd Sauerbrun has a big edge in punting with a gross average of 44.6 yards and a net of 35.6. The Patriots actually cut punter Ken Walter during the season, then brought him back one week later. Walter has a 30.3 gross average and a 27.0 net in the postseason. The Patriots make up for it with the No. 2 punt coverage team in the league. The Panthers were only 26th in punt coverage.

Key matchup: In a field-position game, the field-goal kicking of Vinatieri and Kasay could easily decide the Super Bowl champion.

STAT TO REMEMBER

6.3

Average punt return yardage against the Patriots.

KICK/PUNT RETURNS

Panthers 8, Patriots 7

With Bethel Johnson averaging 28.2 yards per return, the Patriots were fourth in the league in kickoff return average. Hurt during the season, Troy Brown averaged 10.1 in punt returns. The Panthers counter with Rod Smart (23.1-yard average on kickoff returns) and Smith (10.0 on punt returns). Johnson, Smart and Smith all had touchdown returns during the year.

Key matchup: Brown against the Panthers' vulnerable punt coverage team.

STAT TO REMEMBER

12.5

Brown's punt-retrun average in the playoffs.

COACHING

Patriots 9, Panthers 8

This is a great matchup between two terrific defense-minded coaches. Bill Belichick is 5-0 in the playoffs since taking the Patriots' job, with the huge upset of the Rams two years ago. John Fox is 3-0 in the playoffs as a second-year coach, and is 8-4 in games decided by three points or fewer in that time. Both teams are well-coached, physical and disciplined. Belichick has top-notch coordinators in Charlie Weis (offense) and Crennel. Fox has two good ones in veteran Dan Henning (offense) and first-timer Mike Trgovac (defense).

Key matchups: How Trgovac and Fox decide to attack Brady and Weis' schemes will go a long way toward determining the winner.

STAT TO REMEMBER

80%

The Patriots' success rate on fourth down in the postseason. Belichick knows when to gamble.

PREDICTION

Patriots 21, Panthers 12

Carolina made a marvelous run through the tepid NFC this season, but New England put together a 14-game winning streak while dominating the much-tougher AFC. Belichick's teams don't have meltdowns in big games. Fox, nevertheless, will find a way to keep it close. But in a game that should come down to the quarterbacks, look for Brady to out-play Delhomme and earn his second Super Bowl ring.

X-FACTORS

Panthers

Cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.: Has four interceptions in Carolina's last two playoff wins and the Panthers will need more big plays from him to stop the Patriots' passing game.

Wide receiver Steve Smith: Must scare the Patriots enough that they double-team him, leaving one fewer player in the box to defend the run.

Defensive end Julius Peppers: Had a so-so year after a superb rookie season, and has the ability to disrupt Tom Brady's rhythm in the passing game.

Patriots

Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel: Rocked Rams quarterback Kurt Warner on a big blitz, forcing an interception in the 2002 Super Bowl. He is capable of doing it again.

Tight end Christian Fauria: If the Patriots spread the field, Fauria should be able to do damage across the middle.

Strong safety Rodney Harrison: The Patriots' biggest hitter could be a blitz force against the pass and the run. If New England can handle Carolina's run, the Patriots will roll.

STARTING LINEUPS

PATRIOTS OFFENSE

WR 87 David Givens

LT 72 Matt Light

LG 71 Russ Hochstein

C 67 Dan Koppen

RG 63 Joe Andruzzi

RT 68 Tom Ashworth

TE 88 Christian Fauria

WR 83 Deion Branch

QB 12 Tom Brady

FB 31 Larry Centers

RB 32 Antowain Smith

PANTHERS DEFENSE

LE 90 Julius Peppers

LT 99 Brentson Buckner

RT 77 Kris Jenkins

RE 93 Mike Rucker

OLB 53 Greg Favors

MLB 55 Dan Morgan

OLB 54 Will Witherspoon

CB 24 Ricky Manning Jr.

CB 23 Reggie Howard

SS 30 Mike Minter

FS 27 Deon Grant

PANTHERS OFFENSE

WR 87 Muhsin Muhammad

LT 75 Todd Steussie

LG 78 Jeno James

C 60 Jeff Mitchell

RG 65 Kevin Donnalley

RT 69 Jordan Gross

TE 86 Kris Mangum

WR 89 Steve Smith

QB 17 Jake Delhomme

FB 45 Brad Hoover

RB 48 Stephen Davis

PATRIOTS DEFENSE

LE 91 Bobby Hamilton

NT 92 Ted Washington

DE 93 Richard Seymour

OLB 55 Willie McGinest

ILB 54 Tedy Bruschi

ILB 95 Roman Phifer

OLB 50 Mike Vrabel

CB 24 Ty Law

CB 38 Tyrone Poole

SS 37 Rodney Harrison

FS 26 Eugene Wilson

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