Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Patriots vs. Panthers Super Bowl Preview (1/28/2004)

Hey there,

So everyone keeps asking me how I think the Super Bowl will go. Well, you're about to be among the first to know.

When the Panthers have the ball.

Look for Carolina to run it as much as they can. They'll probably go deep with a couple of early pass attempts, just to keep the Pats defense honest. But for the most part, they will run with Stephen Davis and throw some short passes and try not to turn the ball over. As with many NFL games, it wouldn't surprise me if the Panthers scored on their first or second drive. Teams often have good plans for that opening salvo, but the Patriot defense will make the proper adjustments and stop the Panthers running game for most of the rest of the first half, as they have done to most every running back this season.

Unlike the last two games, I expect the Patriots will blitz a lot more against Delhomme. And early in the game, most of those will be contained blitzes on obvious passing downs, because committing a lot of blitzers against a running team can lead to big plays - draws or outside pitches for 30+ yards. The Pats have enough defensive speed to close down the 30+ inside run if the back breaks through the blitzers, but giving Davis the outside would be a major mistake. The Pats will jam the Panther receivers at the line of scrimmage, and the coverages will be complex enough to confuse both the receivers and the quarterback. And that confusion should lead to either failed drives or turnovers. The Panthers sometimes send only two or three receivers into the pattern, not enough to test the Pats defensive backfield the way the Colts and Titans did.

This is a mismatch in the Patriots favor. Carolina runs the ball well, the Patriots stop the run better than anyone. Carolina has a limited passing attack and an inexperienced quarterback, the Patriots have a fast and experienced defense that confuses even the best veteran QBs. Heck, the Titans and Colts have much more offensive talent, especially at quarterback, and each scored only 14 points against the Pats in the playoffs - so I don't expect the Panthers to score very easily. If the Patriots convert an early Carolina turnover into a touchdown, the game could be over quickly.

When the Patriots have the ball

I expect the Patriots to go deep at least twice in the first two drives. Carolina probably anticipates the Pats will use the short pass and the run to move the ball down the field. But I expect them to throw deep against coverages designed to take away the short game, and Tom Brady has hit on more big passing plays this year than the previous two combined. The Panther run defense is solid, so don't hold out much hope that the Patriots will control the ball with the run. But they will run and will have a decent average per run - they just won't run enough to control the game that way. It will fall to Brady and the receivers, and that's just fine with me. He's performed well all year, minimizing those crucial mistakes while maximizing his opportunities. The Patriots have scored an opening-drive touchdown in five straight games, and if they do so in Super Bowl XXXVIII, it will put a lot of pressure on that young Panther offense.

The Panthers are big and physical on defense, much like the Titans. They get pressure with their front four, giving them seven players to drop into coverage on pass plays. And on running plays, their front four usually occupies the entire offensive line, leaving the linebackers and defensive backs to clean up. Their linebackers and DBs are physical and will challenge the Patriot receivers at the line and over the middle - no different that most of the year, which is why the Pats had so many injuries at WR. Carolina will force the Patriots to grind out yards for most of the game, but if the Patriots get time, the Carolina secondary is vulnerable to the big play. As in the Titans game, look for Bethel Johnson early.

This is a slight advantage to Carolina. Their defense is playing well at just the right time and they are big and physical. If the Pats hadn't faced the Titans and Dolphins twice this year, I'd say they weren't ready for a physical defense, but they are. However, without a bruising running game to wear down the Carolina defense, it will be a chore to score a lot of points against them. The most important thing for the Patriots is to protect the ball - because the Panthers live for the turnover.

Special Teams

Adam Vinatieri is a better field goal kicker than John Kasay. Kasay missed three field goals in a big loss to Philadelphia, and missed a short kick in the St. Louis playoff game, whereas Vinatieri is money in the bank - no kicker you'd rather have in a big game. The kick coverage for both teams is very good, and I don't expect a lot of big plays on kickoffs. On the other hand, Todd Sauerbrun is a better punter than Ken Walter. Sauerbrun's yardage and net yardage averages were 7 and 5 yards better (respectively) than Walter's. But Ken easily beat Todd in touchback percentage (4% for Walter, 12% for Sauerbrun), kicks downed inside the 20 yard line (33% to 29%), and average kick return yards against (7 to 12). Still, all in all, I'd take Sauerbrun over Walter - although Ken has kicked better since returning against Jacksonville. I don't anticipate a lot of big returns against the Patriots, their coverage is very good, but you might see Troy Brown pop a few 20+ yarders against the Panthers.

I'd call this an ever-so-slight edge to the Patriots. The kick coverage teams are disciplined and well coached, and the kicking distance game goes slightly in favor of Carolina. But the difference in the big game is Adam Vinatieri and his golden toe. Nothing beats the knowledge of how to get it done with everything on the line, and his performances against Oakland and St. Louis two years ago say it all.

Other Factors

Both teams will benefit from the two week break. Defenses are always the major winners under such scenarios, so the Panthers will likely make it tougher on our offense because they had two weeks to prepare, just as we will do to their offense. The coaching match up is in the Patriots favor, but the "underdog" factor goes the Panthers way. So what decides it is that the Patriots have a better defense, a much better offense, and a slightly better kicking game. It won't be a blowout unless the Panthers panic and turn the ball over, which could happen but I don't expect it.

Injuries shouldn't matter much. Russ Hochstein played very well as a replacement for Damien Woody, and Ted Johnson will step in if Tedy Bruschi is injured - and that won't be as much of a factor as usual, because the Panthers don't have the passing attack to take advantage of Johnson's limitations in pass coverage. Carolina running back Stephen Davis has practiced all week and will likely be almost full speed for the game. Besides, a good running game almost always depends more on the offensive line than the actual running back, and the Panthers don't have any injuries there.

The Prediction

Since I'm going to the game, I am incapable of predicting a Patriots loss. I'd say a late turnover will turn the game from a 10-point game to a 14- or 17-point game. Let's go with 27-13.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Forget about the 14-game winning streak, did you know the Patriots haven't trailed in a game since before Thanksgiving?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

No comments:

Post a Comment