Some observations of this past weekend’s games…
Homeland Defense, indeed!
On a day where turnovers and miscues would haunt the Colts, the Homeland Defense of the Patriots once again defended their home turf and this time it punched their ticket to the Super Bowl in Houston. After Brady lead the Pats down the field on the opening drive, this game had all the making of an old-fashioned shoot-out a la the 1982 Dolphins-Chargers game. Unfortunately for Peyton Manning and the Colts, the Patriots defense had other ideas. The Patriots were able to throw off the Colts high-powered offense by applying pressure to Manning forcing him to scramble. Being the defense wizard that is Bill Belichick, he knew that Manning was less accurate when he has to leave the pocket and create something on the move. The result of this gameplan? Four INTs. Granted, the bad snap on the first punt in three games for the Colts didn’t help, but it was the stifling Pats defense that held Peyton Manning to only 237 yards passing and stud WR Marvin Harrison to only three catches for a paltry 19 yards. On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady once again did just enough to get the job done also tossing for 237 yards passing (spooky!) including one TD and one INT. Antowain Smith ran hard between the tackles posting a 100-yard rushing game thanks to a couple big runs towards the end of the third quarter which set up Automatic Adam Vinateri’s fourth of five field goals on the day. The Pats find themselves in unfamiliar territory as they head to the Super Bowl as favorites for the first time. In their previous visits to the big game, they’ve been huge underdogs. Coach Belichick won’t be able to use the “respect” theory as motivation, but this Patriots team is self-motivated and will look to capture their second Super Bowl title in just three years.
Third time not a charm for McNabb and the Eagles
Despite the Rocky music being cued up ready to blare out the speakers at Lincoln Financial Field, it was not to be. The Eagles could not overcome four interceptions and the Panthers will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl on Feb 1st. Unfortunately for Philly, their receivers continue to play as if they are reading the playbook for 1996 and someone switched the stick ’em with grease. The four INTs cannot be attributed solely to the QBs. A slant pattern went awry when Todd Pinkston decided to not follow his route taking the outside not realizing that McNabb was firing a pass exactly when Pinkston should have been had he stayed on the assigned route. Another INT came when James Thrash was popped by Panthers safety Mike Minter and the ball landed in the hands of Ricky Manning Jr. whose three INTs set an NFC Championship game record. The turnovers were all the Panthers needed to keep the Eagles offense in check and do just enough to claim victory. The Panthers only “real” offensive drive came at the beginning of the second quarter when they drove 79 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead. The drive culminated on an under-thrown pass to a double-covered Mushin Muhammad who was able to make the adjustment and pull in the 24-yard TD strike. Beyond that, it was the running duo of Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster who combined for 136 yards on the ground that led the Carolina offense. The real story of the game is how the Panthers defense were able to shut down McNabb and the Eagles all day long. Five sacks, four INTs and knocking McNabb out of the game was the work of a stout defense that is ready to advance to the next level. With Tom Brady and the efficient Pats offense on tap, you can bet the Panthers will need another strong performance from the defensive unit to stand a chance at taking home Carolina’s first Vince Lombardi trophy.
Some other passing Super Bowl thoughts….
Three words can describe how the outcome of this weekend’s games were determined: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Four turnovers for the Eagles, zero for the Panthers, the Panthers advance. Five turnovers for the Colts, two for the Patriots, the Patriots advance. Sometimes the best laid plans can change that quick. With both teams touting strong defenses, you can bet they’ll both be trying to win the turnover ratio to give their so-so offenses any advantage they can get.
Speaking of the offenses, the Panthers offense will face another tough challenge in the big dance. The good news for Carolina is Stephen Davis will have an extra week to get healthy and carry the load of the running game. Even with Davis banged up, DeShaun Foster has run extremely hard and have given the Panthers that little bit extra when needed. The bad news for Carolina is Tedy Bruschi and the rest of the Pats defense will also have time to lick their wounds. Despite needing five field goals last week, the Pats offense appears to be firing on all cylinders. Tom Brady is playing smart, efficient football. Antowain Smith is running north-to-south and seems to have captured some of that burst that he had back in 2002 when the Pats won the whole thing. While the Panthers front four may be the best in football, they’ll have trouble getting to Brady as the Pats passing attack is very capable of getting the ball out quick enough to avoid the pressure.
Breaking down the Pats offense vs. the Panthers defense and the Panthers offense vs. the Pats defense, I’d have to give a slight edge to the Pats in both matchups. Not only do they have the more talented players, but with Belichick, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, (who may all be head coaches in the NFL next season), they certainly have the edge in the coaching department which is a big reason why the Pats are looking to win their 15th game in a row. As mentioned above, turnovers can change everything, but if the Pats continue to play as they have been for what seems to be an eternity, it’s hard to imagine the Vince Lombardi trophy not being brought back to frosty Foxboro when all is said and done.
The Pats get it done and take home their second title in three years: New England 20, Carolina 13.