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Pats must take balanced look at Panthers offense

It’s no secret Carolina likes to run the football. But what some may not know about the Jake Delhomme-led offense is its propensity to make big plays.

HOUSTON – It's no secret that the Carolina Panthers like to run the football. But one thing many non-Panthers partisans may not know about the Jake Delhomme-led offense is its propensity to make big plays in the passing game.

Delhomme completed 46 passes of 20 yards or greater during the season, quite a high total for an offense that has the reputation for playing it close to the vest with the run. And they've added 12 more in three postseason games.

That reputation is hardly undeserved since the Panthers are one of only three teams who attempted more runs this season than passes. But Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick had cautionary words for anyone who believes stopping Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster means the Panthers are finished.

"I think Carolina has a balanced offense," Belichick said in his final press conference before Super Bowl XXXVIII. "They have good backs who run hard and are efficient. But in the passing game, this has been a big play passing game all year with the decision-making Jake has, the ability to throw the ball down the field and particularly with [Steve] Smith and [Muhsin] Muhammad."

While the Panthers don't exactly emit memories of the Air Coryell San Diego Chargers with their long-range attack, Belichick is right. Smith and Muhammad can make big plays and each has displayed those talents periodically throughout the season.

Smith was the leading receiver with 88 catches for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns while Muhammad added 54 catches for 837 yards and three touchdowns. Both have been key factors in the team's success in the playoffs with Smith pacing the Panthers with 14 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns and Muhammad adding 11 grabs for 212 yards and one score.

"A lot of them are catch and run plays where they get open underneath and make people miss and go for long yardage," Belichick said. "Defensively you have to be able to defend them all the way vertically from the line of scrimmage down the field. And it's a well balanced attack, it's well contrived and well executed."

The obvious example of what Belichick is talking about came in the divisional playoffs against St. Louis when Delhomme hit Smith down the seam and the speedy wideout scampered 69 yards for the game-winning touchdown in double overtime.

But that wasn't the only one as Belichick accurately pointed out. On Carolina's possession of the postseason against Dallas, the Panthers faced a third-and-three and surprised the Cowboys with a pass. Smith took a short toss from Delhomme and turned it into a 70-yard gain down the sideline, setting up a field goal that gave the Panthers an early lead.

"In watching their games, I thought there's a good balance to the team," Belichick said. "If there's not one particular area that you're not very adept at defending, then naturally they'll favor that and make you pay for it. St. Louis was a good example of that. They got those counters going and weak side plays going and ran them all day with a lot of success."

Of course not many teams have enjoyed that kind of success against the Patriots this season. New England allowed 38 plays of 20-plus yards through the air. Six of those came from Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who threw for the most yards in a game against New England this season with 360 in a 38-30 loss on Oct. 5. And the Patriots limited the NFL's co-MVPs – McNair and Indy's Peyton Manning – to just four such plays in the playoffs.

But one thing the Panthers could possibly have in their favor is how the Patriots are forced to stop the run. If they're forced to commit extra personnel to contain Davis and Foster – most likely in the form of safety Rodney Harrison – it could leave them further vulnerable to Delhomme's dangerous corps. In that case, tackling will become of utmost importance in the secondary.

"We've been doing an excellent job in that department all season long," Harrison said. "I see no reason why that shouldn't continue."

Let the games begin.

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