NEW ORLEANS -- Matchups for Sunday's Super Bowl between the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
For the past three seasons, the Rams have had one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history, led by quarterback Kurt Warner (13), the MVP in 1999 and this season; running back Marshall Faulk (28), the MVP in 2000; and wide receivers Isaac Bruce (80), Torry Holt (88), Az-Zahir Hakim (81) and Ricky Proehl (87). Left tackle Orlando Pace (76) is one of the NFL's best offensive linemen, although he will be hampered by a knee injury, and Tom Nutten (61) and Adam Timmerman (62) are very solid guards. Timmerman, who played for Green Bay in its 1997 Super Bowl win over New England, is in his fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons, two each with the Packers and Rams.
They go up against one of the league's most mystifying defenses. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been one of the NFL's best defensive minds for nearly two decades. And while there are no stars on the New England defense, there's a lot of experience. Ends Bobby Hamilton (91) and, Anthony Pleasant (98), linebacker Roman Phifer (95) and CB Otis Smith (45) all played for Belichick at other stops and have the system down pat. Rookie nose tackle Richard Seymour (93) will be the key man against the run and appears to be a future star. Add to them LBs Willie McGinest (55) and Ted Johnson (52), veteran starters who have been hurt all season but played well in the win over Pittsburgh in the AFC title game.
But few teams can hold down the Rams, who are playing on artificial turf -- the same surface that enhances their speed at home. Warner threw for 4,830 yards, second most in NFL history, but did throw 22 interceptions, and the Rams led the NFL with 44 giveaways, almost three a game. Faulk had his fourth straight season of 2,000 yards overall, and Bruce, Holt and the others are augmented by tight end Ernie Conwell (84). Ty Law (24) and Lawyer Milloy (36) are top flight defensive backs. Smith (45) has spent his career making big plays and having big plays made against him. Nickel back Terrell Buckley (27) is a veteran who's excellent in man-to-man pass coverage, but gambles a lot on making interceptions.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: CB Smith against either Bruce or Holt. Smith will need a lot of help.
SLEEPER: Conwell can get open if the wide receivers are double covered.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Tom Brady (12) has won 12 of 15 starts at quarterback after replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the season. He kept the job even after Bledsoe was healthy. Brady injured his left leg in the second quarter and Bledsoe (11) threw for the only offensive touchdown in the 24-17 win over Pittsburgh. Brady will be back for the Super Bowl. He runs a conservative offense, but has been very efficient in clutch situations, including the divisional playoff, when he rallied the Patriots in the snow to a 16-13 overtime win over Oakland after they trailed 13-3 in the final quarter.
Antowain Smith (32) has been the workhorse running back that New England lacked the past two seasons, with 1,157 yards in the regular season. He has to carry at least 20-25 times to keep St. Louis' high-octane offense off the field. The Rams' defense, with eight new starters this season, gave up 198 fewer points than in 2000. Two rookies -- strong safety Adam Archuleta (31) and linebacker Tommy Polley (52) -- played major roles, but the three best players are defensive end Grant Wistrom (98), middle linebacker London Fletcher (59) and cornerback Aeneas Williams (35), who was obtained in an offseason trade from Arizona. Wistrom and defensive end Leonard Little (91) are both good pass rushers and Wistrom has a knack for being in the right place to make a big play.
Troy Brown (80) was New England's top receiver and David Patten (86) its most dangerous. Neither did much until this season, particularly Patten, who had a breakout game against Indianapolis in which he became the first player since Walter Payton to run, catch and throw for a TD in the same game. Rod Rutledge (83) is the blocking tight end, and Jermaine Wiggins (85) caught 14 passes in the regular season, then had 10 against the Raiders in the snow. Kevin Faulk (33) and J.R. Redmond (21) are the third-down backs.
New England has a rarity for a Super Bowl team -- a rookie, Matt Light (72) at left tackle, where he will be matched against the very active Wistrom. Center Damien Woody (65) is probably New England's best offensive lineman, but shifts to left guard in the shotgun because left guard Mike Compton (77) is a better snapper.
Williams has been huge in the playoffs for the Rams, setting a record with two interception returns for touchdowns against Green Bay. The Rams go three deep at cornerback, with Dexter McCleon (21) and nickel back Dre Bly (32) both well above average.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Light against Wistrom. Wistrom is very mobile, breaking up plays and moving up and down the line. If Light keeps him under control, New England might have a chance to move.
SLEEPER: Charles Johnson (81) is the third wide receiver. He lost his job to Patten and has been a disappointment all season, but had two catches for first downs in the title game against Pittsburgh and could cause trouble as a third wide receiver.
The Patriots beat the Steelers with two special teams touchdowns, one on a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown by Brown, one of the few regulars in the NFL who also stars on special teams. Larry Izzo (53) has spent five years in the NFL as almost strictly a special-teams player and is one of the best at covering kickoffs and punts.
The Patriots wouldn't be here if not for special teams. Kicker Adam Vinatieri (4) made a 45-yard field goal in the snow to tie Oakland in a game the Patriots won in overtime. And the other TD against Pittsburgh came on a blocked punt by Brandon Mitchell (96), picked up by Brown and lateraled to Antwan Harris (23), who returned it 49 yards for a TD.
St. Louis' kicker Jeff Wilkins (14) was 23-for-29 this season and didn't miss from inside 40 yards. After Hakim (81) struggled in punt returns, he was replaced by Bly. Yo Murphy (83) is the main kickoff returner.
COACHING AND INTANGIBLES
Belichick is one of the NFL's best defensive tacticians, but this is by far his best season as a head coach. He was under .500 until this year. He seems to have mellowed and is communicating better with his players. Much of his staff goes back to the days with the Jets, Patriots and Giants under Bill Parcells: Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are longtime Parcells-Belichick assistants.
He also cares little about stars or statistics, relentlessly preaching the team concept. That may be one reason why veterans who are no more than average as individuals have blended together into units that mesh so well.
Mike Martz of the Rams has spent the last two seasons antagonizing colleagues who think he's arrogant and egotistical because he so often says what he thinks. But he's also considered one of the game's most innovative offensive minds, going back to the concepts that Don Coryell introduced in San Diego more than two decades ago. And rare for the free agent era, he has been able to retain all his offensive talent.
But the key to this season is probably defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who came from Tampa Bay and put together a defense with eight new starters that blended almost immediately.
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