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Final preparations

The Patriots went to Reliant Stadium for a walk-through this morning and are now ready for their physical battle with the tough-minded Panthers.

The Patriots went to Reliant Stadium Saturday for a final light walk-through and to take their team photo. The team will board busses later to leave the Inter-Continental Hotel to travel to an undisclosed hotel to spend their final pregame night in seclusion away from the fan contingent hanging out inside the lobby of the team's headquarters.

The game plan is in and should be mastered by this point since the teams had two weeks to prepare for Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Patriots are seven-point favorites.

"I think in this case, two weeks is the right amount of time," Belichick said. "I think we're ready to go. There was a lot to get ready for. Carolina has an extensive scheme and they're very good at what they do. Two weeks has given us enough time, meeting time and film time to see them and be able to prepare for them. I think we've tried to schedule it and have the timing so that we'll be ready to go Sunday afternoon. I think we will be.

"Carolina is the type of team you could prepare for for eight weeks and still need time. I think we've condensed the amount of time in practice efficiently so we should be ready to go."

The Patriots will have to come ready to defend a running offense that pounds and pounds as its staple and uses that to set up big play opportunities. The pressure will be on the Patriots corners in those situations because the safeties, and Rodney Harrison in particular, will be playing the run action most of the time. Corners Tyrone Poole, Ty Law and Asante Samuel, as well as safety Eugene Wilson, who could be manned up at times, will have to not only cover the Panthers go-routes and post patterns down the field, but make sure they tackle well because the Panthers gain many yards after the catch. The obvious key is to stop Stephen Davis early and often and then get ahead to render him a non-factor.

That's not easy, however, because Davis runs off his blocks so well. Five of the Panthers six offensive lineman started all 16 games and the other started 15, so the continuity is there among the linemen as well as between Davis and that group.

The Panthers are a patient team and will stick with their powerful running game as long as the score allows. If the Patriots can stop Davis and build a lead, they can then get into some of their creative rush and coverage packages that could force Jake Delhomme into a mistake, although he has been a clutch performer all season. If Carolina gets the lead, a steady diet of Davis and DeShaun Foster will be forthcoming. In that instance, Delhomme wouldn't likely throw more than 15 passes in the game.

Offensively, New England will likely spread the field and make the Panthers cover the multiple receiver formations. Expect Carolina to challenge the receivers early on to make Tom Brady hold the ball on his quick drops in order to give its formidable front a chance to collapse the pocket. New England's receivers will have to beat the press and make Carolina pay for its aggressiveness.

If the Panthers drop off and employ a zone coverage scheme, Brady will have to use his pump-fakes to keep the Panthers aggressive corners from jumping the short routes. Expect the Patriots to take an early shot down the field at a big play to loosen up the underneath coverage. They will max protect on any such play with a tight end and a back helping to give Brady the time needed to throw downfield. Carolina's safeties can close fast, however, and the timing of the routes will be critical.

Antowain Smith will get his carries out of some spread looks as long as the score allows for the Patriots to continue running. The interior of the Patriots offensive line will have its hands full dealing with Carolina's big athletic tackles, but those guys have done a solid job against physical fronts when challenged this season so that battle will be one to watch.

If both teams avoid a major mistake, Super Bowl XXXVIII will be a low-scoring, physical game that could be won by the team with the last possession. That's the approach both teams take and both teams have had success winning games in that fashion in 2003.

Patriots offensive key: Carolina could disrupt the passing game by hitting the wideouts rather than coming after Brady and the receivers must do a good job of fighting through the coverage. Brady has to spread it around, stay unpredictable and exploit any mismatches. His chances will be few to make a big play and he has to take advantage of any opportunity that arises.

Patriots defensive key: Fill the running lanes and don't let Stephen Davis get the edge. Carolina's runners can cut it back and find the crease. This will take a physical, disciplined defensive effort.

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