The Super Bowl kickoff is here
The Patriots, N.E.'s feel-good story, play for title tonight
HOUSTON -- The words -- and there have been many -- have all been spoken. After 13 days of nonstop hype and analysis, the New England Patriots, winners of 14 consecutive games, play the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium tonight in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Led by maturing boy wonder quarterback Tom Brady and preparation-master coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots seek to win their second championship in three years and cement their claim as one of the best teams in NFL history. They have not trailed in a game since before Thanksgiving, and their last defeat came almost three weeks before the Red Sox' catastrophic loss to the Yankees in mid-October.
New England's fickle fall advanced one of the coldest winters in memory, and the Patriots have managed to bring some warmth and good feeling to a region beaten down by bad weather, big digs, and baseball collapses. It's pretty clear that Patriot Fever has gripped the Hub when the elitist Bread & Circus stores are selling Super Bowl cakes.
There's a reason Bob Kraft's team has become New England's feel-good story of the year. The local pro football season has been a rare demonstration of young people taking direction, putting the cause above individual glory, and striving for ultimate success. The Patriots have put cynicism on the shelf. If you are a parent, teacher, or coach, the 2003-04 Patriots are your team.
"This has been a great group to coach," the reserved Belichick said in his final pregame press conference. "I think the players have responded well on a consistent basis . . . to try to follow the game plan, to take care of their job, to handle their responsibility. And that's really what coaching is all about, if you can get the players to do what you want them to do."
The Patriots have only two Pro Bowlers. There is no public indication of ego or entitlement. Their one potential superstar is Brady, and he generates no resentment from teammates because he's quick to credit others and deflects praise the way he sheds pass rushers. He manages to be one of the guys: Brady's devotion to the offseason conditioning program won him a preferred training camp parking spot, which is sort of like earning "Employee of the Month" at Wal-Mart. Stars don't usually go there.
The ever-reserved Belichick recoils at the thought of being favored. He blanches when he's asked what a victory will do to his legacy and his team's place in football history.
"Right now, I don't think this is any time to reflect on anything," said the coach. "I think this is time for performance."
En route to a 16-2 record, the Patriots marched through the AFC East, then beat Tennessee and Indianapolis at home in the playoffs. Meanwhile, a veneer of invincibility enveloped the team. The Patriots expect to win and their fans expect them to win.
Violating NFL policy, the Patriots have pledged to forgo individual pregame introductions and run onto the field as one. The group introduction was a big hit two years ago, and Patriot veterans say nothing has changed.
The Panthers lost five games this year but got hot at the end of the season. They feature a trusty running back in Stephen Davis and a fearsome defensive line featuring Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner (always a bad-luck name for New Englanders), and Kris Jenkins, who is being talked about as the best defensive tackle in football.
The two most repetitive themes of tonight's game probably have been the incessant comparisons of Brady to Joe Montana, and the idea that this year's Panthers are similar to the Patriots of two years ago.
The Panthers certainly play a different style of football than the Patriots did in 2001-02, but like those Patriots, Carolina players come into the game knowing that few folks expect them to win. The Patriots were able to use underdog status as motivation against the Rams, and the Panthers have done the same this week. Carolina special teams player Rod "He Hate Me" Smart said his hotel room didn't have a shower.
Carolina doesn't have the tradition or name players of a typical Super Bowl entry, but if one were to design a team that might give the Patriots trouble, it would look very much like coach John Fox's Panthers. Carolina has a terrific running attack and can shorten the game with clock-eating drives. The Panthers have rugged, veteran receivers who are not likely to be bullied by New England's hammering defensive backs. They also have a great pass rush, which is something Brady hasn't seen in a while. He was not sacked in either playoff game.
Having been in the big game two years ago should help the Patriots. Not making the playoffs last year is another plus today.
"I was much more anxious a couple of years ago," said Brady. "And I remember last year how miserable it was being at the Super Bowl and not playing."
They are in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in team history. A win tonight will bring a warm glow to New England and ignite talk of a Patriot dynasty. And the parents, teachers, and coaches of the world forever will have a championship model to explain the essence of team play.