Part of Panthers Head Coach John Fox's philosophy on how to build a winning team starts with strength along both lines. With his first draft pick with Carolina, number two overall, Fox selected defensive end Julius Peppers to spearhead the building of a defensive line that is now one of the main reasons the Panthers are playing in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
And while Fox doesn't know exactly where his impressive group of linemen ranks with the rest of the league, he does put his faith in their play and knows his team's success this Sunday will be keyed by their production.
"There is no question we have a very talented front four," Fox said of a group that includes starters Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner and backups Al Wallace and Shane Burton. "It's a conglomeration of guys with different strengths and different weaknesses. It's hard for me to say who is actually the best. I know I don't think I would trade my guys for many in the league. I think we are just going to get better as time goes on."
The players themselves aren't so shy about where they believe they fall in comparison with other units.
"Hands down, pound for pound, across the board, stopping the run and pass rushing we have the best front four," Rucker said.
But they also know that the group's true reputation can be made or destroyed two days from now, as teams, groups and players are often done on Super Sunday.
"The old saying says offense sells tickets and defense wins championships," Buckner said. "Our defense is built around our defensive line. If we go out there and win a championship, we can be mentioned with Tampa Bay of last year and the Steel Curtain because they won championships. That's being the top defensive lines of all time because they went out there and did it. Doomsday defense, Randy White, they won championships with their defensive line. Everybody knew they were good, but you don't get that permanent stamp on you unless you win a championship."
According to Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, a guy who was the groups position coach a year ago, the units success is derived not only from the talents of the individual players, but also from the group's cohesion.
"I think it's a combination of both," Trgovac said. "First of all they are good football players. Secondly we work hard at keeping them in a pattern [of responsibilities]. And third they are very unselfish with one another. They like when the other one has success and that's not always the case with pass rushers that want to get to the quarterback. There are a lot of selfish players that all they want is their sacks. They are very unselfish."
That unselfish play has a lot to do with the fact that all the players along the line have an incredibly tight relationship off the field.
"We just became close," Buckner said. "We were just drawn to each other because each one of us strive to the best that we can be. We want to help this team to the utmost. It just came naturally.
"The way for me to know those guys better is not on the football field, I have to know where they go emotionally off the field. That's where you really learn the person. I know when Mike Rucker isn't feeling good. I know when Al Wallace needs to be picked up. So on the field you see those emotions, because during a football game emotions run up and down, so by knowing each other off the field we sort of know what to expect on the field."
"It is that closeness that you have," Jenkins, a two-time All Pro tackle, said. "You are going to work harder for somebody you consider family than you would for somebody you don't really know. I think that's one thing that helps. I am not going to slack because I know I am going to be letting them down, because I am going to be letting down the rest of the guys on the defense."
Much like in a family, that off the field relationship includes specific roles for each player.
"Pep, he's the quiet guy," Rucker said. "He's kind of like silent, but deadly. You have Buck who is kind of the coach, the outspoken guy. You have Jenks who is like the big kid. And me, I am just a little bit of all of them. I know when to be quiet. I know when to talk and I know when to play."
They all know that they will have to play, and play well, on Sunday if the Panthers have any chance of upsetting the favored Patriots and stamping their place in the football history books.