Early decisions pay off for Super foes

Super Bowl XXXVI this Sunday could hardly be a more unusual pairing.

On one side are the St. Louis Rams (16-2), owners of the most explosive air attack in the NFL, a team built on speed and precision, the "greatest show on turf." Their most divisive internal conflict is a rivalry between their offense and defense for who gets more media attention.

On the other side are the New England Patriots (13-5), a team known for its nerdy coach, its $103 million backup quarterback, and a mix of unknown players who somehow form a whole greater than the parts. It's hard to deny that a favorable referee's decision in a playoff game against Oakland played a role in the Patriots' Super Bowl advance. But they made it this far, and for that reason deserve respect.

Beyond the David vs. Goliath motifs that have clogged the airways this week, the game will pit two contrasting football philosophies against each other.

Although the Rams have an excellent defense, they win games with a blistering offense that stretches opponents until they break. Led by quarterback Kurt Warner, who came from nowhere to find NFL stardom, the Rams are one of the few remaining teams in professional football who regularly throw the long ball.

This year the league set records for having its lowest average yards per completion, 11.5, and highest completion percentage in history, 59. That means quarterbacks today have abandoned the long bomb in favor of quick, short passes that are designed for ball-control offenses.

Not so with Warner and his speedy receiving corps of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Ricky Proehl. Warner this year averages nearly 13 yards per completion. He has thrown for 300-yards 26 times in his career and has a stratospheric lifetime quarterback rating of 103.0. After just three years as an NFL starter, he's already spoken of as a future member of the Hall of Fame.

Warner's potent arm meshes perfectly with the legs of Marshall Faulk, a dynamic running back who hits teams like a hammer after Warner has loosened them up. Or, as was the case in the Rams' 29-24 playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, Faulk can carry the whole team on his back if necessary.

He's arguably the best pound-for-pound player in football.

Neither running nor passing would be possible, however, if not for the Rams?226-130?' offensive line, which makes gaping holes for Faulk and picks up blitzes so Warner has time to throw downfield.

"People don't really appreciate the job that they [the offensive line] do for the running game as much as for our passing attack," Faulk said at a press conference this week.

The Patriots are at the other extreme of the star-laden Rams. Their roster is made up of nobodies, has-beens, walk-ons, and guys who could have starred in the movie "Rudy." Their hottest player right now is receiver Troy Brown who, until the playoffs, never registered a blip outside New England. But the Patriots are well coached by Bill Belichick - and they are smart.

Belichick, who is known to enjoy spending endless hours in dark rooms watching game tapes, has designed a complex defensive scheme that confounds opponents. Against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, he stacked his linebackers in the middle of the field, close to the line of scrimmage, so the Steelers couldn't run the ball. That forced QB Kordell Stewart to throw into deceptive coverages downfield - something that he could not do effectively.

On offense, Belichick gets productivity out of unheralded players. His top priority is to not turn the ball over, which tends to lead to a low-scoring game. He likes to give the ball to running back Antowain Smith, who is adequate (although not in the same league as Faulk). The Patriots' strategy is reminiscent of the formula that led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win last year: let your defense and special teams win the game; hope your offense doesn't blow it.

At quarterback, the Patriots have two effective passers: Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe. Brady fits Belichick's system better because he is more mobile and more able to make quick reads of the defense. Bledsoe, on the other hand, has a stronger arm. Brady, who was injured against the Steelers, will start the Super Bowl, but there is little doubt that Belichick relishes having the option to use either of them.

"To have those two quarterbacks on the same team is pretty special," said Rams coach Mike Martz, who will have to prepare his team for either quarterback.

Despite all their differences, the two Super Bowl teams do share something in common: Both teams can chalk up their success this year to crucial decisions the coaches made well before the playoffs began. For the Rams, that decision, by Martz, was to scrap the defensive coaching staff after a disappointing season last year and to rebuild under new coordinator Lovie Smith. This year, the Rams have six new starters on defense and they finished ranked No. 1 in their conference.

For the Patriots, Belichick decided to keep playing Brady even after Bledsoe, who had started the season as the No. 1 quarterback, had recovered from injury. That move was against all the conventional wisdom of NFL football, and it was especially difficult considering Bledsoe's massive contract.

With those respective decisions well in the past, the two coaches have only one thing left to do: win the big one Sunday.

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