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ON FOOTBALL

This time around, Patriots will be the favored sons

FOXBOROUGH -- This time the Patriots are the St. Louis Rams. Two Super Bowls ago, the Rams were prohibitive 14-point favorites to beat New England. They had one of the most productive offenses in NFL history, one so awe-inspiring it was nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Turf." They didn't just beat teams, they embarrassed them.

When the Patriots arrived in New Orleans, it was supposed to be for their own funeral, but they proved on Super Sunday that the only time you have to beat an opponent is on the day you play them. You do not have to beat them with statistics and you do not have to beat them more than once. One and done. Or, in the case of the Rams that day, one and stunned.

Two years later, the Patriots are returning to the Super Bowl. They will go with one of the best defenses in league history, a group that allowed 14.9 points per game during the regular season and only 14 a game in playoff victories over the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts.

It is a defense that didn't just beat the league co-MVPs, who were quarterbacking those opponents. They embarrassed them into costly errors and subpar performances.

They have an offense that is efficient and risk-averse, one directed by a quarterback who is a deadly accurate mid-range passer and the owner of a facile mind that processes a lot of fast-moving information in a hurry and usually comes up with the right solution to the problem he is facing.

In front of these Patriots stand the Carolina Panthers. Two years ago, the Panthers were 1-15 and ended their season by taking a pounding from the Patriots on their home grounds. But coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney have rebuilt the team from the ashes of that season, creating a tough-willed group that has gone from 7-9 a year ago to NFC champions. They are a team much like the Patriots, one grounded by defense but buoyed by a powerful running game as well.

Yet few expect this Cinderella team to beat the Patriots. They opened as 7-point underdogs in Las Vegas, and although the line was bet down a half a point in three hours, that doesn't mean much. No one expects a team of unknown Panthers quarterbacked by a kid who had been a backup all his life and led by a defense without a single star to beat a team that just two years ago pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history -- and is now better.

That leaves the Patriots in an unusual position. They no longer can use the rallying cry of Rodney Dangerfield (or Rodney Harrison, for that matter) to inspire them. They still can say, "We get no respect," but they'll be fibbing when they do.

They have the Pro Football Writers Association Coach of the Year in Bill Belichick, the Executive of the Year in Scott Pioli, the Assistant Coach of the Year in Romeo Crennel, a quarterback who finished third in the MVP voting, and a defense with three players going to the Pro Bowl (Ty Law, Richard Seymour, and Willie McGinest).

Professional athletes being the way they are, a few Patriots still will claim, "No one thinks we can win," but the fact is nearly everyone thinks they can win, including this typist, and most are expecting they will.

They have an offense that is superior to the Panthers', even though Carolina's running game is stronger. They have a defense that is on fire and facing a conservative, run-oriented attack that plays into their strength, which is stuffing the run and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. And they have coaches in Belichick and Crennel who have made their considerable reputations by baffling far more experienced quarterbacks than young Jake Delhomme, who won't believe his eyes when he's trying to figure out what in the world the Patriots' defense is doing.

Best of all, Belichick and his staff have two weeks to prepare for the Panthers, not the one-week rush job of two seasons ago.

That didn't seem to bother them, since they held the Rams to 17 points, but things can only get worse for Delhomme and Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning when Belichick has two weeks to break down their team and come up with a defense to thwart it.

Compounding the Panthers' problem is that they are a one-dimensional offense that throws as infrequently as possible. That doesn't mean Delhomme can't throw, but it means Fox would rather he not if it's avoidable. Delhomme has only 43 completions in three playoff wins, and Sunday against the Eagles he ended up just 9 of 14 for 101 yards, numbers that didn't matter because his defense forced four turnovers, made five sacks, and gave the Eagles no breathing space.

That will be more difficult to accomplish come Feb. 1, however, because Tom Brady seldom turns the ball over and the New England offensive design allows him to get rid of the ball so quickly that sacking him is difficult for any pass rush, even one as furious as the Panthers' can be.

Conversely, New England's defense has held opposing quarterbacks to an aggregate rating of 56.2 this season and has given up only 11 touchdown passes, less than half the total of a year ago. It also has been dominant against the run, which will be important because Stephen Davis had 1,444 rushing yards, third best in the NFC.

"I'm going to try not to think about the Patriots tonight so I can at least get some sleep," Delhomme said after beating the Eagles. "I don't want to think about that defense just yet."

That may have been wise because he won't get much sleep once he starts watching the film. Delhomme and his teammates already have pronounced themselves this year's Patriots because they know how few people believe they will be able to move the ball or score in the Super Bowl. They are right; they are destined to be the Patriots.

The Patriots of 1985 and 1996. The ones who lost the Super Bowl to better teams.

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