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  WHEN THE PATS PLAY THE CATS, TAKE THE CATS.  
   
   
   

Let's get this out of the way. I am picking the Carolina Panthers to beat the New England Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl.

That is the only way this whole thing is fun. The Patriots are such favorites that, yeah, a sane pick and a safe pick -- and the boring pick -- is to choose the Patriots. So I could tell you the Patriots are probably the more talented team, certainly the more experienced and likely to win. But finding a way for the Panthers to win is far more interesting and because I'm going to find that way, I might as well pick them to actually do it.

 

   
 
 
   
 

The vast majority of folks picking winners are going to pick New England. That, plus a perceived lack of star quality to the players in this game, have combined to depress expectations for this game tremendously.

I understand that argument. But I think this is going to be a heck of a game. Neither of these teams gets blown out or blows out their opponents very often. You're going to see two great defenses knocking some slobber out of each other. You'll see a quarterback in New England's Tom Brady who manages a game better than anybody in the league and gets more out of a mediocre group of a players than he probably should. And you'll see an excellent running back in Carolina's Stephen Davis who is not just a bulldozer-type player. If truly 100% healthy, he'll pop some runs outside and run away from some people.

Plus, there are all those commercials.

When you watch the Super Bowl, try to appreciate the technical greatness that the Panthers usually play with. Davis is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he hits the correct holes faster and harder than ever. Those holes are there because the offensive line has been playing incredibly well. Right tackle Jordan Gross would have been a finalist for Rookie of the Year if he weren't an offensive lineman. Left guard Jeno James has been mauling people in the postseason.

This unit can control games when the Panthers are able to stick to their game plan, though they have struggled in pass-only situations. But even those are rare because the Panthers are better than any team I've seen in years at sticking with their game plan. They're here to run and they don't care if they go three-and-out on the first three series of the game because they figure that they'll whip together an eight-minute, 85-yard drive on the fourth try.

Carolina will be playing the toughest defense it has seen all season so the Panthers actually will have to work hard. New England's defense is not dominating in the traditional sense, but its genius is in controlling games by returning interceptions for touchdowns and creating turnovers in the red zone -- not simply big plays but ones that decide games.

And that will be the Panthers' biggest challenge: Not making the one mistake that blows the game. That is a tough way to play, always on edge and always in fear of screwing up. Carolina has done a great job of it in the postseason, but you can't watch them without thinking they are about to blow it.

In a sense, the Patriots do the same thing on offense. They have a very unimpressive collection of talent outside of Brady but still averaged 21.8 points a game (thank you, defense). They again will need some huge plays to have a chance to score.

Antowain Smith is an average running back who runs best against average-to-poor defenses, which Carolina is not. Kevin Faulk is a little quicker and could get outside where the Panthers' weakness against the run is. Faulk, though, has had problems fumbling, and I'm not sure that Bill Belichick will have enough faith in him.

Brady is a master at completing 3-yard passes when the Patriots spread the field with four or five receivers. There are two problems with this strategy against the Panthers. First, Carolina's secondary has improved dramatically since about midway through the season. Ricky Manning had the brilliant three-interception game against the Eagles and is the best of the cornerbacks. Both safeties, Mike Minter and Deon Grant, are playing well. Minter has become a true force, blitzing well and pounding any receivers who come near him. After Manning, the Panthers' other cornerbacks are a bit weaker, especially nickel corner Terry Cousin.

He should be Brady's first target, but Brady might not have time. This is where that tremendous Carolina defensive line comes in. Tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner and ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker should control the run and could turn the game when the Patriots try to pass. They should not have much trouble pressuring Brady, especially if the Patriots spread five receivers. All four of those linemen are quick enough and strong enough to disrupt Brady's rhythm, even when Brady is taking those quick three-step drops.

That might cause New England to keep a couple extra blockers, which gets away from what they like to do and limits their chances to test Carolina's lesser cornerbacks. Also, Brady has gotten wild at times away from cozy Gillette Stadium. All 12 of Brady's interceptions this season were on the road and seven came in New England's two losses. (How absurd is it that the Redskins were the last team to beat the Patriots?)

If Brady isn't dinking-and-dunking from the start, that will be your first sign that Carolina has an edge.

So we've established a way for Carolina to limit New England's offense. The Panthers just need to score a few points if they stick to their guns. Teams did not run much (401 rushes against were fourth-lowest in the league) against the Patriots because they got discouraged.

But the Colts' Edgerrin James averaged nearly 4 yards a rush in the AFC title game and didn't have a better game because the Colts didn't stick with him. One reason that James ran reasonably well is because the Patriots uncharacteristically did not tackle well. I'm not sure if this was because they have several veterans who wore down a bit or because of the conditions or something else. If Davis (or DeShaun Foster, who is almost as good and a more similar runner than you think) just has to step through a few arm tackles, he'll have a huge game.

Another reason I like Davis' chances if the Panthers are patient is because Patriots nose tackle Ted Washington is a very large man. Most opponents try to run at him a few times, then give up. But he wears down quickly and has to be replaced fairly frequently. The Panthers should run at the space he vacates when he is out of the game and they will because they are equally happy running on second-and-1 as they are on third-and-8.

New England's defensive playmakers usually are the linebackers (though cornerback Ty Law obviously also has had a huge presence). Guys like Willie McGinnest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel make plays because Washington, Richard Seymour and somebody like Dan Klecko or Jarvis Green occupy enough blockers to let them run around free. They are not especially great at getting off blocks or making up ground in the open field.

That's why Carolina will create some holes if James, center Mitchell and guard Kevin Donnalley hold their own, and I think they will. Again, don't be surprised if the Panthers can't do this at first. Assuming they do not fall behind by 17 points in the first half, they will keep up their persistent ground game and eventually move the ball.

Back in their 23-20 win at Indianapolis in October, the Panthers were down 13-3 at halftime and had 20 rushing yards and 88 total yards at the break. Patience, patience, patience. They finished with 189 rushing yards in that overtime win.

So that's how Carolina wins: No huge screwups. Getting quick pressure on Brady. Patience. That is what the Panthers have been doing all year, plus they will have an edge on special teams: Todd Sauerbrun can punt Ken Walter out of the building. Panthers kicker John Kasay had a phenomenal season, and Adam Vinatieri, while proven in the clutch, had the worst regular season of his career and missed two kicks in Reliant Stadium last fall.

There are many storylines that will be fun to watch. The Panthers reprising the Patriots role of two years ago -- unsung team, huge underdogs. Carolina fulfilling its owner's promise of winning a Super Bowl within its first 10 years. A team overcoming an inordinate amount of death (running back Fred Lane shot by his wife, wide receiver Rae Carruth in jail for murder).

My favorite would be seeing Carolina wide receiver Kevin Dyson catching a key pass in a close or tied game near the goal line and, this time, getting that final yard for the winning touchdown.