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BOB RYAN

A secret weapon at QB

HOUSTON -- The Patriots have shown the world what they can do with high-octane, high-profile quarterbacks during these playoffs. Now let's see what they can do with an aw-shucks quarterback whose weekly goal is to stay out of trouble.

"I don't need to win this game by myself," says Jake Delhomme of the Carolina Panthers. "I've got a couple of studs behind me, and some weapons to throw to. I'm just a link in the chain."

Jake Delhomme doesn't have to tell us he's happy to be here. Isn't that obvious? A year ago, the primary item on his professional resume was taking the Frankfurt Galaxy to the 1999 World Bowl championship. Six years after leaving Southwest Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette) as the school's all-time passing leader, he had thrown just 86 passes as a New Orleans Saints backup. Now he's one of two starting quarterbacks preparing for the sport's biggest game, and it doesn't bother him that in this QB matchup he's the "who's he?" party of the second part. Ask yourself: Did you see him on camera during the State of the Union address?

He can't even be sure that people will get his name right. One inquisitor not too long ago referred to him as "Jack."

"That doesn't bother me," he insists, "because that's not what I'm all about. I could care less about statistics and accolades as long as I can help the Carolina Panthers win. I just don't have that kind of ego to let that stuff bother me."

In the absence of conflicting evidence, we shall take what he says at face value. If it's an act, it's a very good one.

Much like Tom Brady, he is a game manager. At no point during this season have coach John Fox or offensive coordinator Dan Henning asked Delhomme to win the game for his team. He has thrown as many as 49 passes (in a 37-17 loss to Tennessee), but nine times in the regular season he threw in the 20s, and in the NFC Championship game against Philadelphia he was asked to throw the ball only 14 times.

Fox doesn't come right out and say, "Look, quarterback is not one of our great strengths. All we want our guy to do is not lose the game for us." What he does say is "I feel very confident that Jake Delhomme is good enough to win the championship for us, and time will tell."

Delhomme knows who he is, and he happens to share that confidence. Asked his reaction to the way the Patriots handled co-MVPs Steve McNair and Peyton Manning on successive playoff weekends, Delhomme says, "I'm not going to be intimidated. If I'm intimidated, I'd be doing an injustice to the Carolina Panthers. You've got to understand that those defenders practice, too, and they're going to win some battles. You've just got to win more of them during the course of the game. Certainly, they are good defenders, but that's why you play the game."

This particular game has been very special to Delhomme, who grew up in Breaux Bridge, La., in the very heart of Cajun country, a fascinating slice of America where people love their God, love their family, love their food, love their hunting, and love their football. Young Jake loved those Super Sundays, watching the likes of Joe Montana and Troy Aikman. "Those halftimes were long, and I used to run outside and throw some touchdown passes in the front yard," he recalls.

When he got older and a bit more sophisticated about the game, he found a new idol: Brett Favre.

"I just loved the way he played football," Delhomme explains. "I loved the way his fire and enthusiasm rubbed off on his team. They wanted to play for him. And he came from just a couple of hours away. But I guess liking him meant that I now knew more about football and just wasn't rooting for the star players on winning teams."

His own career took off at Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette, and he reached new heights as a Ragin' Cajun. He started 43 straight games at Southwest Louisiana. But when draft day came in 1997, his name never was called. The humbling process had begun.

He did hook on with the Saints, and he thought he got a big break when he was sent to Amsterdam in NFL Europe, where he expected to be starting. The only thing was, there was this Kurt Warner guy . . .

"Sure, I was disappointed," he says. "I was sure I was going to play."

He had a much better experience in Frankfurt a year later, and now he was back in the league's conversational loop. The Panthers saw what he could do when he started the final game of the 1999 season (the actual date was Jan. 2, 2000). The Saints lost, but Delhomme threw for 243 yards and a touchdown.

The new Carolina regime showed an interest when he became a free agent last winter, and he actually had a choice between the Panthers and Cowboys.

"I looked at all the pros and cons," he says, "and the pros favored Carolina. I saw a team on the verge of something, although I can't say I thought it was on the verge of the Super Bowl."

Incumbent Rodney Peete was still the starting QB in the season opener against Jacksonville, but Delhomme relieved him in the third quarter and finished 12 for 20 with three touchdowns and the game-winning TD aerial to Ricky Proehl with 16 seconds left to cap a comeback from 17 points down. That was the end of the Rodney Peete Era.

Delhomme's final totals were 3,219 yards passing, 19 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. In the most important category, he was 11-5, as we will take the liberty of giving him the W in that opening game. If you want to compare him to Brady, he'll gladly take that as an immense compliment.

"Watching him two years ago, what struck me was that the game [i.e. the Super Bowl] wasn't too big for him," Delhomme says. "That's what I'll try to take from him. He's a winner."

Call him Jack, call him Jake, but just don't forget to call him when it's time to hand out the rings.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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