NEW ORLEANS (Jan. 29, 2002) -- This is no attempt to kill with kindness.
When members of the New England Patriots gush about the St. Louis Rams' offense, it is prompted by a genuinely healthy respect. The Patriots see what everyone else sees -- a proliferation of yards and points, quick-strike capability across the board, a great quarterback, one of the best all-purpose running backs in the history of the game, and more talent and speed at receiver than any one team should have a right to call its own.
With Tom Brady sidelined by injury, Drew Bledsoe came off the bench to lead New England to a 24-17 win at Pittsburgh.
Their secondary's ability to cope with the "Greatest Show on Turf" will go a long way toward determining the outcome of Super Bowl XXXVI.
"They've got a hundred million weapons on that team," Patriots cornerback Otis Smith said. "If you neutralize one weapon, then they just go somewhere else."
"They have a lot of thoroughbreds," said Patriots strong safety Lawyer Milloy. "This is going to be a week where we eat a lot of salads instead of steaks trying to stay light."
Stay light. Run fast.
And speed is the first need for the Patriots to have any hope of keeping up with the Rams. Their receivers -- Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Ricky Proehl -- are all capable of game-breaking catches with a single flick of Kurt Warner's arm.
The Pats got an up-close look at this amazing aerial circus in their 24-17 loss to the Rams on Nov. 18. Warner threw for 401 yards and three touchdowns, and was intercepted twice.
This is what New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi learned from that game: "At times, they can be unstoppable."
But at other times, a defense can frustrate the St. Louis passing game. A physical style, which the Patriots like to play, can be particularly effective. By making frequent contact with the receivers at the line in bump-and-run coverage, the Pats know they can disrupt the timing of the Rams receivers just enough to foil Warner's ability to hit them in stride. Sometimes, delaying a receiver's route by a step can cause Warner to hesitate just long enough for a pass rusher to get in his face.
The physical approach of the Pats' secondary had plenty to do with silencing the Pittsburgh Steelers on the way to winning the AFC Championship Game. Smith and fellow cornerback Ty Law plan to do plenty of bumping Sunday.
"If you can't get off the line of scrimmage like you want to, it throws off the timing, it throws off the whole offense because the quarterback only has so much time to hold the ball back there," Smith said. "Their offensive line does a great job of blocking, but they can only block for so long.
"(Bump and run) helps our secondary a lot, because it enables Lawyer Milloy to come down in the box and do his thing and try and help with the run. With a back like Marshall Faulk, we're going to need him down there. So Ty and I are really going to have to hold up on the edges."
In general, the Patriots think they can be effective against the Rams' receivers with physical play by all of their defensive backs. Besides bumping, it is equally important for them to make solid contact just before or after the ball reaches the pass-catcher's hands.
"When you go into a game, you always go in looking at their team, trying to see what their advantage over you is," Milloy said. "In this case, it's probably speed. Then you try to evaluate what your advantage is, and I think right now ours is definitely toughness.
"Can you slow them down? I think, to a certain extent, you can. But this team we're facing is a well-oiled machine. They don't get flustered."
The Rams' passing game usually is at its very best on artificial turf, especially the one at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. That's because fast players generally are much faster on fake grass than they are on the real stuff.
When the teams last played, the game was on the natural surface of Foxboro Stadium. The Super Bowl will be played in the Superdome. Advantage, Rams.
"There's still another gear we're going to have to get used to with their speed, because we're on turf," Bruschi said. "We were in Foxboro on a damp night and the turf wasn't as tight as the Superdome turf is going to be."
New England might have lost the game when the teams last met and Warner might have produced his customary eye-popping numbers. However, the Pats' defenders gained first-hand knowledge of what the Rams' passing game looks like from ground level.
"There's definitely a shock factor after the first snap when they get off the ball and they're coming at you with all cylinders," Milloy said. "You're like, 'Whoa! Hold on now.' We're over that shock factor. We know what to expect.
"We're not going to be in panic mode, because we've already faced them on national television (ESPN's Sunday night football). We've already been in the same scenario. This time there's just more at stake."
The Rams' many offensive assets don't end with talent. There is also the creative strategy and aggressive mentality of coach Mike Martz.
"Their coaching staff does a great job of putting the game plan in, and when the defense takes something away from them, they just go somewhere else," Smith said. "It seems like it doesn't even faze them.
"We've got to go out there and be a complete package ourselves, because they have a complete package. Once we figure out what they're doing offensively, I think we'll be a complete package defensively and go out there and match what those guys are doing."
Isn't that what all great competitors live for?
"It's a lot of fun," Smith said. "But if you don't raise your game, you're going to get embarrassed."