Hasten to Houston

And then there were two. The New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers each won their conference titles on Jan. 18, sending them on to Super Bowl XXXVIII. The NFL championship game is scheduled for Feb. 1 in Houston.

The Patriots are heavily favored to win, but the same was said of all of Carolina’s playoff opponents – Dallas, St. Louis, and Philadelphia – and Panthers plowed through each team. Carolina is making its first Super Bowl appearance in team history. For their part, New England is making its second Bowl appearance in three years, the closest thing to a modern-day NFL dynasty.

The AFC Championship game was held in Foxboro, Mass., and the cold and snow were enough to help New England freeze Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 24-14. Manning, who had seemed to have left his difficult playoff past behind him, threw four interceptions, three of them to Ty Law. The Patriots defense truly turned the tide in this game, forcing the Colts’ first punt in 10 quarters of postseason football and scoring a safety when the ball was badly snapped.

New England’s offense was not so shabby either. Tom Brady set the pace from the beginning with a touchdown pass to David Givens on the Patriots opening drive. The team has scored on its opening drives in five straight games. Antowain Smith carried for more than 100 yards on 22 carries, and kicker Adam Vinateri put in five field goals and an extra point – enough to beat the Colts on his own.

At the NFC Championship in Philadelphia, the hometown crowd was treated to a lackluster Eagles performance, as the visiting Panthers took the title by a score of 14-3.

Ricky Manning, the Panthers rookie cornerback, grabbed three interceptions to help keep the Eagles at bay. It helped, too, that Eagles QB Donovan McNabb suffered a rib injury and had to be replaced by Koy Detmer. Together, the Eagles quarterbacks were sacked five times.

The Carolina offense also held up its end of the bargain. Quarterback Jake Delhomme proved that he is contender – throwing 9 of 14 for 101 yards and one touchdown, a 24-yarder to Mushin Muhammad. Stephen Davis, despite a strained leg muscle, rushed for 76 yards on 19 carries and pulled in 21-yard reception. He was supported on the ground by DeShaun Foster, who ran for 60 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries.

Who knows what will happen on Super Bowl Sunday? We can be assured of one thing, however: it will be a memorable match-up.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.