Thursday, February 5, 2004

Patriots 32, Panthers 29 (2/1/2004)

Well, hi there. Hope you got to watch the game and enjoyed it as much as I did. As you no-doubt know, YOOOOOUUUUUURRRRR New England Patriots won 32-29 on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri, claiming their second Super Bowl Championship in three years - by a total of six points. Each half was a defensive struggle followed by an offensive explosion, with all the points being scored in the second and fourth quarters. Each team acquitted itself nicely, and I give the Panthers a lot of credit for hanging in and coming back. But in the end, experience won the day, and the Pats are world champions again.

I haven't seen the entire game (I was scrounging for tickets until mid-way through the first quarter), and I didn't get to watch the rest of the game the way I really like to, but I wanted to send my impressions. If my opinions change once I see the game this weekend (I have it on tape), I'll send a follow-up email.


First off, kudos to the Patriots offensive line and their coach Dante Scarnecchia. Three playoff games, zero sacks, and an average of 112 yards rushing a game (a 10% improvement over the regular season). The Pats controlled the clock for 38 of the 60 minutes in the Super Bowl, and a lot of the credit goes to the O-line's domination of the acknowledged best defensive line in the NFL. They used run-blocking schemes to get the Panthers defense off-balance and on their heels, and it worked to perfection. Antowain Smith hit holes big enough to fit two Ted Washington's through, and Kevin Faulk's speed and shiftiness was a great counterpoint and clearly caught the Panthers off-guard. After the game, several Panther defenders said the Pats ran the ball every time they thought they would pass and passed it whenever the Panthers thought it would be a run - a credit to Charlie Weis and the offensive play-calling.

All that said, this day really belonged to Tom Brady and the Patriot receivers. Brady had 32 completions (a Super Bowl record) for 348 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception. Deion Branch had a huge day, torching the Panthers for 143 yard on 10 catches and he appeared to be running alone most of the day. David Givens and Daniel Graham made good contributions to the attack, while the Carolina cornerbacks were exposed by Branch and Troy Brown (8 catches for 76 yards and one broken nose). They were caught out of position on run-fakes on all three touchdown passes. They just weren't good enough to jam the receivers at the line and then cover them down the field, and when they committed extra DBs in to help in coverage, it left fewer guys to rush the passer and stop the run.

And getting back to Brady, he's obviously matured as a quarterback since their last Super Bowl. He had more attempts, completions, passing yards, and touchdowns. The "just don't lose the game" mantra from Super Bowl 36 was replaced by the "go out there and win it" attitude in this game and he delivered big play after big play. League-wide, 75% of the audibles that quarterbacks call are passing plays; Brady audibled into a running play at least four times that I recall, and that keeps a defense off-balance because they're just not expecting it. And as impressive as the last drive was in both Super Bowls, each of them came with the game tied and where failure simply meant overtime. I was more impressed with the second-to-last drive because the Patriots were behind and failure to score could have meant losing the game. He really is cool under pressure, and here's hoping he stays healthy for a long time.


Ted Washington was a real key to the Patriots defense. With him clogging the middle, the Panthers rushed for an anemic 92 yards (a 30% drop from their regular season numbers), with half those yards coming on two runs (Stephen Davis's 21 yarder before the half and DeShaun Foster's 33 yard touchdown). The Panthers averaged close to 6 yards a carry, but like the Rams before them, they insisted on throwing into a defense that was more vulnerable against the run because of its deployment. That brings me to another defensive key to the game: the ability of the defensive line to get pressure without blitzing. The Pats blitzed either four or eight times in the game (depending on your source), which isn't much for them - although at least two of those resulted in sacks by Mike Vrabel. Vrabel had a career game (two sacks, a forced fumble, and a touchdown reception), and the defensive line got steady pressure and played pretty well against the run with little or no help from blitzers.

Tyrone Poole's performance was a bit sub-standard for him, and the Panthers wisely stayed away from Ty Law. In fact, Carolina had only two long scoring drives on the day, one came after Rodney Harrison was injured, and the other came after Eugene Wilson was injured, leaving the Patriots with no starting safeties in the game. After the second injury, Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme simply dropped back and threw to the deep middle for one completion after another, working his way down for his last touchdown of the game. I was impressed with the toughness and resiliency of the receivers, and Delhomme played inspired football. But in the end, their early first-half failures left them with no margin for error in the second half, and they couldn't take enough advantage against the Pats defense when it had worn down.

Special Teams

Adam missed two kicks (one wide-right, one blocked) and botched a "squib" at the end of the first half, Ken Walter had a low kicking average, and the return teams didn't do much to help the Patriots with field position. All that said, however, the Patriots special teams significantly outplayed their Carolina counterparts. Carolina has zero big returns, their punter put two through the end zone, and when the pressure was on, John Kasay put a kickoff out of bounds to give the Patriots the ball at their own 40 yard line with over a minute left in the game. At the very least, you have to kick that ball in-bounds, because even if Bethel Johnson returns it to the 40 yard line, it takes 10 or 15 seconds off the clock. The Carolina fans sitting near us said they would take Kasay in any pressure situation, but as I said in last week's email, he is not a good clutch kicker (missed three in a loss to Philly this year, missed a potential overtime game winner in the playoffs this year, and now booted one out of bounds at the worst possible time).
And when the money was on the line, Adam V. came through again - right down the middle with only four seconds left. In fact, Vinatieri's kickoffs were longer than usual (must have been the extra week of rest), and the kick coverage was great. It seemed Carolina always had the long field to go. Even Ken Walter pitched in with a 51 yarder to shift field position at a critical time in the third quarter.


This was absolutely a mismatch. The Panthers out-thought themselves in the two week run-up to the game. They didn't run often enough and couldn't pass for most of the first half. If the Pats hadn't gotten some injuries (and scored so quickly that their defense started getting tired), this could easily have been a 17- or 21-point blowout because Carolina gave up on what got them to the game. They went for two points much too early in the fourth quarter, and had to follow that up with another failed two-point attempt, never made the adjustments necessary to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket, and never adjusted to the play-action pass near the goal line (I mean, three play-action pass touchdowns is unheard of). Meanwhile, the Patriots used run-blocking to slow the Panther defensive line, they played a soft zone instead of blitzing and that seemed to confuse Carolina, and their pressure confused the offense to the tune of four sacks and a fumble. The only mistake the Patriot coaches made was the ill-advised and poorly executed squib at the end of the half.


Heck of a game and a heck of a run. 15 consecutive wins speaks volumes about the resolve and resourcefulness of this team. I said weeks ago that this is one of the five or six best defenses I've ever seen, and the intervening time hasn't changed my mind at all. Tom Brady wants to get ring
#3 and I give him a great shot to get it before his career is over. But if they can hold the coaching staff together for next year, I'd give him a good chance of doing it next year. I can almost hear Belichick saying to the team: "You want to be recognized as one of the great teams of all time?
Then win it all next year and you'll have three Super Bowl wins in four years - only one other team has ever done that (Dallas Cowboys)." They've got some issues to handle in the off-season, but every team does; however, keeping the coaches together is the key to making another run in 2004. In my preseason preview, I said the following: "This may be the last year the Patriots have Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. If the Pats have a good year, look for at least one of them to get a head coaching job." Well, if the rest of the league lacks the patience to wait for Weis or Crennel, their loss is our gain - and our gain will be the league's loss next year!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Just like with the Rams in 2001, look for teams to attack the Panthers defensive line the same way the Patriots did in the Super Bowl. They just couldn't get a decent push against the run-blocking schemes on pass plays - it totally took them out of their game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-0!

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