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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004

Brushing up Super Bowl XXXVIII

Staff writer

HOUSTON -- So, here come the New England Patriots, making their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons, to take on the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina who?

Not familiar with them? Don't worry. Neither are the Patriots. At least, not yet.

In lieu of endless hours of game films and scouting reports that the Pats will be cramming this week, we offer you "Carolina Panthers 101 - Parallels in History."

The Panthers, based in Charlotte, N.C., joined the NFL in the 1995 season and surprised many by advancing to the NFC championship game in 1996. Five years later in 2001, the Panthers made headlines by becoming the first team in the NFL history to lose 15 straight games in a single season.

This season, the Panthers beat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice en route to an 11-5 record to wrap up the NFC South title. In the postseason, they beat Dallas, St. Louis and top-seeded Philadelphia to reach the NFL championship game.

The more you learn about the little-known Panthers, the more similarities you find between them and 2001 Patriots, which captured the league championship.

Both teams' starting quarterbacks were backups on Opening Day. Carolina's Jake Delhomme replaced an ineffective Rodney Peete in Week 2, while New England's Tom Brady took over for injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 5 of the 2001 season. Neither QB lost a game after taking over.

Both teams were led to the Super Bowl by defensive-minded head coaches - Steve Fox for the Panthers and Bill Belichick for the 2001 Patriots. Fox, hired after the infamous 1-15 season, rebuilt the team around solid defense to pull off the best turnaround in the NFL history.

Both teams are also short on big name players. Panthers running back Stephen Davis is probably the most known, but he made his fame with the Washington Redskins. However, as Carolina players are apt to admit, their berth in this year's Super Bowl is the result of a team effort.

Again, sort of like the 2001-2003 Patriots, who refused individual player introductions at the Super Bowl two years ago and came out on the field together. That symbolized how the Patriots reached the game's biggest contest - a season-long team effort that relied heavily on no-name heroes.

Momentum appears to be another common factor. The Panthers this year became the first No. 3 seeded team to clinch a conference championship since 1990. They shed their "underdog" moniker by beating the Rams in overtime in the divisional playoffs and the Philadelphia Eagles -- led by one of the league's premier passers, Donovan McNabb - for the NFC Championship,.

The Patriots entered the 2001 postseason as the No. 2 seed, but upset the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers in the conference championship game before defeating the heavily favored (14 points) Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Now the Panthers enter the Super Bowl as an underdog (6 1/2 points as of Tuesday) just like the Patriots did two years ago.

Where the similarities end? We'll find out on Sunday (Monday morning Japan time).

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