FOXBOROUGH -- This doesn't even qualify as a war of words. Not long enough. Warren Sapp fired a shot Wednesday, the Patriots said what little they had to say yesterday, and that's that. All Sapp, the talented and loquacious Buccaneers defensive tackle, can say is, "touche," and enjoy Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Patriots and Panthers.
Like a recap? It won't take very long. Appearing on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," Sapp was asked his prediction for the Super Bowl. He picked Carolina, which plays in the same division as Tampa Bay, the NFC South.
"Simple reason," Sapp told co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. "I think this defensive line of Carolina will dominate the front five of New England. I don't even think it's a fair matchup. I don't see how they're going to get it done because I think Russ Hochstein started for them in the AFC Championship game and I've seen Russ Hochstein block, and he couldn't block either of you two fellas. Damien Woody was the best lineman they had, but Russ Hochstein, trust me, my friend, he couldn't block either of you two."
Carolina's Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, and Mike Rucker vs. New England's Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Joe Andruzzi, Tom Ashworth, and Hochstein does appear to be a major mismatch. So was this brief verbal sparring match after the Patriots issued their response. If Sapp wants to continue this, he can do so Tuesday at Media Day in Houston. One of the stars of Media Day 2003 will be covering this year's for the NFL Network.
"Where are we going?" Woody asked rhetorically. "That's a wrap right there. We're going to Houston, and he's watching. That's all I'm going to say about it."
Hochstein, a fifth-round pick of the Buccaneers in 2001 out of Nebraska and a teammate of Sapp's until Tampa Bay waived him Sept. 17, 2002, took the high road. "All I care about is Carolina," Hochstein said. "Carolina is what's on our plate."
Across the Patriots' offensive line, Sapp's disses were diplomatically dismissed. "I'm only dealing with what's at hand," Light said. "Unless he's playing for Carolina in the near future, I don't have a lot to say about that." And Tom Brady, who hasn't been sacked in two playoff games, came to the defense of the men who protect him. "He'll get a good view from wherever he is sitting," Brady said of Sapp. "For him to talk like that, he hasn't played us since we won the Super Bowl [two years ago]. They had a great year last year. He's a great player, but he likes to talk a little bit, too."
Now let's talk a little bit about New England's real opponent.
Carolina, which has won consecutive playoff games at St. Louis and Philadelphia, has an average offense (it ranked 16th of 32 teams in the regular season), but a powerful running game, led by Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. Offensively, the Panthers are far (like the distance from Charlotte, N.C., to St. Louis) from the Rams of two years ago, but, nonetheless, New England isn't taking them lightly.
"Offensively, they have some big-play players," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They have a good running game. They have a very efficient quarterback. They have a good offensive line, and their receivers are big-play guys. They're fast. They break a lot of tackles. I know that [Steve] Smith is not physically that big, but he has great balance and he's a strong runner, pound for pound he plays big. It's a very explosive group. You can't let them out of your sight there."
But the matchup most people are focused on is New England's offense vs. Carolina's defense. The Panthers were right behind the Patriots in the regular season, finishing eighth in total defense and third in scoring defense. They have the best front four in football.
Good thing for the Patriots' unheralded linemen they're battle-tested. Their experience against the Eagles', Titans', Dolphins', and Cowboys' defensive lines should come in handy. New England won all of those matchups, by the way. "You had to have proven it at some point, to come as far as we have," Light said. "We've got confidence that we can get it done.
"I've seen a defense that flies around, that plays as physical as probably anybody we'll see or we've seen as a unit up front," Light said. "This year, we've seen a lot of different things. We've played against a lot of different types and styles of defenses. But this is, by far, probably the most physical. They obviously have some big playmakers with their defensive ends. They also have them inside with their tackles. And I think the linebackers fly around and run sideline-to-sideline as good as anybody else out there. And then you deal with their secondary. There are only good things to say about them, too. So it's going to take a complete effort. It's definitely not something that we haven't been able to do before, but we're going to have to really focus on them."
The Patriots seem to have the focus of an underdog. They're the favorites, but they're not acting like it. Surprise, they respect the Panthers. Particularly up front. And they have no problem with being up front about that.
"They're probably the best defensive line that we have faced all year," Brady said. "They have very fast linebackers who make a lot of plays. They have a couple of guys in the secondary who come up with a bunch of picks. Mike Minter is a great player. Deon Grant played very steady all year. Ricky Manning seems like he's picking off a ball every week. They can really make some plays. They have great coaches. We have played against Coach [John] Fox before, up here when he was with the Giants. They're very well coached. They're going to be ready to go."