This year's Super Bowl: No 'I's on teams
Patriots, Panthers represent more pluribus than unum.
The event that perhaps more than any other represents America's unabashed embrace of spectacle, the Super Bowl, will not be contested this year by quarterbacks with their own shampoo commercials, or running backs who carry more gold chains than hand-offs,
Instead it will be a clash between two quintessential teams.
They are a bunch of relatively anonymous guys who might look just as natural playing on the local playground as they will in Houston two weeks from now, under a spotlight staged as much for the glamorous as the gritty.
The Super Bowl meeting between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers summons no memories of historic individual match-ups. No two players will fill the roles of an Achilles and Hector, carrying the fate of the conflict on their own shoulders.
Rather, this will be an intricate orchestration between 11 men on each side of the ball, two teams that might depend as much on the alacrity of a safety or the will of a hulking offensive lineman as on the skill and rifle arm of their helmsmen.
After all, who are their quarterbacks? Carolina's Jake Delhomme is probably as familiar to most Americans as the Secretary of the Interior. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated Delhomme's first name.]
And while New England's Tom Brady won a Super Bowl for the Patriots two years ago, his steady play and boy-next-door personality are more fitting to a college a capella group than a league where many players are most identifiable by their tattoos and jewelry.
The two teams' performances Sunday were characteristic of their play all year: stolid and unrelenting, notable as much for what they didn't let happen as for what they did.
Consider the New England game. The Patriots had won 13 straight meetings, in which the defense stood apart as one of the best of all time, many commentators were expecting to see the team's wall of restraint finally crack against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts were led by Peyton Manning, a man who understands his opponents so well he confidently tweaks and changes plays just seconds before the snap. He sends his teammates quick hand signals like a symphony conductor leading musicians through a complex movement.
But against the Patriots, Manning couldn't find his baton. After two games in which the opposing defense seemed not to even see the ball, let alone get a hand on it, the Patriots intercepted him four times.
When Indianapolis did manage to complete a catch, the Patriots' defensive backs, linebackers, and even linemen converged on the Colts' receivers like children greedy for a hug.
The key to the team, and the reason for their relative anonymity, might be their coach, Bill Belichick. Diminutive but square-jawed, Belichick is a recognized master strategist.
He's a defensive tactician, a man who by the game's end seems to know his opponents - and perhaps their own children and in-laws - better than they do.
The unassuming and modest coach never wears the Super Bowl ring he won two years ago, two years ago when the Patriots were no more acknowledged as a great team than they are now.
The Patriots' opponents are, perhaps, even more unsung. First, how many people even knew North Carolina had a team? Debutante balls, yes, but sweaty NFL linemen?
Two years ago, the Panthers played more like southern gentlemen than gridiron warriors, winning only one game the entire season. Also-rans to the very end, this season they succeeded with pure gumption, winning games they weren't supposed to win, upending expectations every Sunday. The unknown quarterback (what's his name again?) unassumingly racked up the best QB rating in the league.
Ricky Manning, who grabbed three interceptions against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, had been cut by two teams earlier in the year.
"You gotta love a team like that," said one Panthers fan.
Like the Patriots, the Panthers suffocated another marquee quarterback, the Eagles' Donovan McNabb, knocking him out of the game in the third quarter, and holding the team to a paltry field-goal kick for the entire game.
And also like the Patriots, the Panther's victory seemed grounded on a rough-hewn foundation of tough play and strong character. When the Panthers began building this current group of players, they began with character.
Three years ago, one player was convicted for plotting to kill his pregnant girlfriend. Another player was shot dead. Management soon ordered coaches to find "character" players.
On Sunday, Muhsin "Moose" Muhammad, the huge receiver who caught Delhomme's winning lob in the first half, pretended to spike, then restrained himself, went down on one knee, and put a finger up to his mouthguard: Hush, Philly, hush.
The self-effacing celebrations, the workmanlike play, they will sound a different and perhaps welcome tone during this Super Bowl, an event that feeds on celebrity and showmanship.
Both teams' focus on pluribus over unum was exemplified by Delhomme after Monday's victory. Asked how he felt holding the NFC championship trophy, he said "It's great, but what I enjoyed most of all was [being] in that huddle when I could hug every one of our offensive players."