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NFL Weekly Picks - Super Bowl
By Bob Cunningham
January 29, 2003
 

STRAIGHT-UP
Last Week -- 0-2
Overall -- 156-110 (58%)

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PREMIUM PICKS*
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I apologize... not just for missing on both my picks for the conference championship games, but more importantly for the reasons I failed to come through for those who actually put some credence in my selections.

I broke a cardinal rule of NFL postseason handicapping and paid the price. Good defense almost always beats good offense. A great defense, at home, in the snow, against a dome team should have been an easy call. Really, it should have been.

But I got so caught up in Peyton Manning's incredible performances in the wild-card and divisional rounds, I simply lost sight of what really wins championships. I mean, I actually talked myself into believing that the Patriots were due to lose.

I figured, correctly as it turned out, that one of the underdogs would win... and I should have been able to recognize that cinderella Carolina, with its newly-anointed balanced offense and ability to pressure the QB, would have a better shot of knocking off the Eagles in Philadelphia than the Colts would have of besting New England at Foxboro amid snow flurries.

I didn't look at the circumstances in full. I sold myself on Manning, and that the Eagles "couldn't possibly lose a third straight NFC Championship game," and simply overlooked much more relevant circumstances.

Shame on me. I always persevere, however, and am prepared to make a solid Super Bowl prediction, that is, after providing you with a detailed breakdown of the combatants.

A consolation for you is that my track record of predicting Super Bowls is pretty strong -- 5-1 in the last six straight-up and against-the-spread. But that isn't relevant to Super Bowl XXXVIII, is it?

Unfortunately, it's not. At least now I've managed to remind myself of that.

SUPER BOWL XXXVIII, Feb. 1 at Houston

CAROLINA PANTHERS vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Records: Panthers, 14-5, NFC champs; Patriots 16-2, AFC champs

Line: Patriots favored by 7 points

Key Injuries: Panthers: none; Patriots: LB Ted Bruschi (ques.).

Panthers' offense vs. Patriots defense: The old adage of running the ball and playing solid defense is prominent in Carolina's run to the Super Bowl, but an underlying truth to the Panthers' postseason success is that their offense has become fairly balanced, at least when it needs to be. QB Jake Delhomme will never be mistaken for Peyton Manning when it comes to putting up gaudy passing numbers. But he doesn't need to be. Delhomme will be playing in Houston Feb. 1 while Manning watches from home in part because of balance. Also partially because of decision-making. Delhomme's has been excellent throughout Carolina's playoff triumphs over Dallas, St. Louis and Philadelphia. Carolina runs the ball well, and throws it okay, too. But with all that said, New England's defense has emerged as the best in football this year. Even if LB Ted Bruschi, the unit's proported heart and soul, is unable to play, the Pats have enough athletic versatility on defense to slow whatever the Panthers choose to emphasize. EDGE: Patriots

Patriots offense vs. Panthers defense: Carolina's strength on defense is pressuring the quarterback, but New England isn't overly affected by that because QB Tom Brady is so good with his reads and the Patriots' passing game is usually quick and precise. They take their shots down the field when the opportunities present themselves, but aren't reliant on doing so. Carolina's secondary isn't a great one. But it's been good enough to get them to the Big Dance. The Panthers' run defense is more than adequate to foil New England's average-at-best ground game, but the clutch play of Brady should offer up just enough significant gains and success in the red zone. EDGE: None

Special Teams: The teams are very similar. Both are better than average on kick coverage, and neither is especially adept at running back punts and kickoffs. And so the difference might come down to field goal kicking. The Panthers' John Kasay is very good, one of the best in fact. But he's not Mr. Automatic in the clutch. Remember his miss from 45 yards in overtime against the Rams after hitting from 40 only to have it not count because of a delay-of-game penalty? And his three misses during a regular season game against Philadelphia? This is getting picky, sure. But the Pats' Adam Vinatieri already has a Super Bowl-winning boot in his career, as well as numerous others. Who would you rather see lining one up with the championship on the line? EDGE: Patriots

Coaching: John Fox has done a wonderful job with Carolina. The Panthers, after all, were 1-15 just two short years ago. They upped it to 7-9 last season before breaking through to run away with the NFC South Division. But New England head coach Bill Bellichick has elevated himself to the elite level. His ability to play matchups and counter opposing attacks is arguably unmatched. His teams are always prepared, and rarely let down emotionall... much like Bellichick. He's proven that he can win a Super Bowl as a prohibitive underdog -- the Pats not expected to keep up with the mighty St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, but ended up prevailing anyway, 20-17. So the only question is, can he lead his team to the promised land a second time, this time as the favorite? EDGE: Patriots

Other Notes/History: While it's my opinion that postseason experience can be overrated, New England's experience by winning Super Bowl XXXVI over the Rams is a factor here. Carolina wasn't expected to get this far and, well, the Panthers' ability to handle the situation is yet to be determined. The Patriots are where they're at because of coaching and discipline, as much as any other reasons... When a team which has won the Super Bowl within the previous three years plays a newcomer during that span, the results are hugely tilted toward the previous champs -- 10-2. It should be noted, however, that the record was 9-0 before Denver knocked off defending champion Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII. The Broncos successfully defended against Super Bowl rookie Atlanta the next year, but the last such game under similar circumstances was the Patriots' upset of the Rams two years ago.

Fantasy Take: Panthers who will put up decent numbers: RB Stephen Davis. Patriots who will put up decent numbers: QB Tom Brady, WR Troy Brown, K Adam Vinatieri, defense/special teams.

Summary: If championships are won on defense, this Super Bowl is the Patriots' to lose. Their 'D' is the best in the business this season, and it's pitted against an offense that is decent but far from lethal. Carolina's defense is also pretty formidable, but the Patriots have the quarterback who knows how to get it done. Tom Brady is the MVP again, and the Patriots wrap up their second championship in three years.

Prediction: NEW ENGLAND 24, CAROLINA 13