Youngsters rise to the occasion

Updated: January 19, 2004, 1:54 PM ET
By By Ryan Early | NFL Insider
Small Men, Big Plays
The intensity level is brought up a notch in championship games. Usually it is the more physical team that wins, and Sunday showcased this fact front and center. Both the Patriots and Panthers had their defensive backs challenge their opponents' wide receivers with strong jams at the line of scrimmage and painful hits down the field. Their quarterbacks were also able to have the time to make good throws while Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb faced defenders in their face all game.

The Patriots really pushed the limits of physical play against the Colts receivers. They got away with a few grabs and initiated contact right around the limits of the five yard area past the line of scrimmage. But the referees let them do it, so they kept it up. The Patriots crowded the line of scrimmage to mimic an all-out blitz but would only rush four or sometimes five. The offensive linemen didn't know before the snap who they needed to block, which allowed the Patriots to take advantage of that confusion to put pressure on Manning.

Marvin Harrison received double coverage all day, with Ty Law underneath and a safety over the top to bracket the star receiver. Even though the Patriots lined a defender up over every receiver to initiate contact at the line and impede the receivers moving quickly into their patterns, they actually played zone predominantly. So as an example, Law would jam Harrison on the line of scrimmage and maintain that contact for the first five yards downfield. If they were close to the sidelines, Law would try to push Harrison out of bounds to take him out of the play completely. At five yards, Law would break off his contact and go into an underneath zone, picking up any receiver running underneath Harrison while safety Rodney Harrison would then pick up Marvin Harrison behind Law. With the defensive backs in zone, they were able to follow Peyton Manning's eyes and break on the ball when the pass was thrown. If Manning's pass wasn't absolutely perfect, it would be either broken up or intercepted.