Carolina Panthers vs. New England Patriots, Patriots favored by 7. I have a strong inclination to just say the Pats are a far superior team and will handle Carolina easily, but I’ll break it down a bit more than that. Let’s start off with the Patriots offense against the Carolina D. I am of the opinion that the Carolina D is overrated somewhat, though the recent improvement is somewhat legit. They were missing some guys at first and they moved Ricky Manning into the lineup, so I think we have to take their D seriously. Based on the stats over at FootballOutsiders.com, the Panther’s defense has gone from average to among the best over the last few weeks. Some of that is luck, such as when Eagles receivers run the wrong routes and cause interceptions that make Carolina look good, but not all of it. Take out the good fortune factor, and I’d say we’re looking at a good to very good pass defense and a good to very good run defense. As for the Patriots, they have basically had a reliable if unspectacular passing game and a reliably unproductive running game this season. However, recently this has changed a bit as well, as Antowain Smith is playing very well right now, giving the Pats a pretty balanced offense. Probably not as good as the Carolina D, but it’s not a big mismatch. Except that the Pats’ offense has been pretty shaky on the road this season, principally because all of Brady’s interceptions came on the road. This could very well be the key to the game: turnovers. If the Pats don’t turn the ball over, or only do so once, they should be in great shape. If they turn it over multiple times, then we could be looking at a loss. So the question is, should we consider this a road game since it’s in Houston, or not because no one will be up against a rowdy enemy crowd? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s a good sign that the Pats are considered the home team this year….
On the other side of the ball the Patriots have a pretty big advantage. Carolina has a mediocre passing game and an overrated running game, while the Pats have a good and improving run defense and a great passing defense. Arguably, the Pats have the best defense in the league. While Delhomme has done better than any of us expected (if we even expected anything), there is no way he is ready to face this Belichick defense. They will give him so many different looks and come at him in so many ways he won’t know what hit him. When the Panthers try to run, don’t expect much to happen. Stephen Davis is a good but not great back, and Foster is a bad not good back. Sure he had that phenomenal touchdown where he pulled about four guys along with him, but generally on grass he sucks. If Davis were fully healthy and capable of running 30+ times I’d be concerned, but he isn’t, so I’m not. As for the road aspect of the game, that probably does help Carolina a bit, as their offense doesn’t seem to be particular about where it plays overall and the Pats aren’t as dominant on the road, but the edge still goes to the Pats. So right now we’re probably calling it a tossup or even a slight edge to Carolina, but of course there’s more.
Special teams favor the Pats by a lot. The Patriots are better in three of the aspects of kick returns (kickoff vs. punt, kicking vs. returning), with a tossup when they are punting. This will give them a big advantage in field position. As for field goals, the stats suggest that Carolina has a large edge here that neutralizes the Pats special teams advantages, except that it’s based on Vinatieri’s bad season. As Adam Ice is basically healthy now, I don’t expect this to be an issue. Advantage New England. So at this point we’re saying the Patriots have a small overall advantage.
Now we come to the harder to define aspects of the game. Coaching, chemistry, experience and the like. John Fox is a fine coach, but I’ll take Belichick and his staff any day of the week. Give them two weeks to prepare for an opponent, and the other guys don’t have much of a chance. Chemistry doesn’t seem to favor either team, as both sides seem to have this in spades; players for both teams are more concerned with winning games than personal stats or fame, so there isn’t really much to say here. On a related subject, Carolina is the sentimental favorite, as everyone loves an underdog. The crowd is more likely to support them than the Pats, so that may be a small edge their way. The last thing I’m looking at is experience, and the Patriots are all over this. About half the current team was there when they won it all two years ago. They know what going to the Super Bowl is all about, what to expect in terms of distractions, how to deal with the pressure, and all those sorts of things. Experience isn’t necessary, but it helps.
So my final prediction is that the experience factor plus the two weeks to prepare by the superior coaching staff factor are decisive for New England. Brady probably will turn the ball over once, but it’s unlikely it’ll be more than that, and the defense will keep Carolina down. PATRIOTS 20, PANTHERS 10. (And if the Pats go up quickly, it could be a lot wider margin than that, as that means Delhomme will have to pass to a waiting secondary. Excellent.)