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Original Issue

Dr. Z's Forecast

We've seen this Super Bowl matchup before. We saw it 11 years
ago when Marv Levy's three-wideout, hurry-up Bills offense, a
dazzling show that had rung up 95 points in its two previous
playoff games, ran into the stodgy, defensive-minded Giants. New
York upset favored Buffalo by a point.

Bill Belichick ran the Giants' defense that day, and he devised
an excellent game plan that left his linebackers on the field
against all those speedy receivers and concentrated on punishing
them whenever they ran short, timed routes. By the fourth
quarter the Bills were dropping the ball, and only the heroic
work of Thurman Thomas, a great running and pass-catching back,
gave Buffalo a chance to win at the end, right up to Scott
Norwood's missed field goal.

For the first time as a head coach, Belichick is in the big
arena, this time leading the amazing Patriots, heavy underdogs
to a Rams team reminiscent of those flashy Bills. What can we
expect from Belichick defensively? Listen to his strongside
linebacker, Mike Vrabel, who helped make things uncomfortable
for St. Louis when the teams met on Nov. 18. "Our DBs and
linebackers kept jamming their receivers," Vrabel says. "We were
more physical than most teams that played them. We might give up
a few holding and interference penalties, but in the long run
it's to our advantage. You wear them down and even start getting
offensive interference penalties."

Sound familiar? In that first meeting the Patriots blitzed like
crazy in the first half and intercepted Kurt Warner twice,
returning one for a touchdown and taking a 10-7 lead in the
second quarter. Then in the second half Warner zeroed in on his
hot reads and quick, timed patterns, and it was all over. Still,
it was scary for a while. "It was Star Wars," St. Louis coach
Mike Martz recalls. "I've never seen so many guys flying at us
from so many directions." St. Louis won 24-17, but New England
has won eight straight since.

The difference this time is that both teams have banged-up
quarterbacks. Against the Eagles on Sunday the Rams spent a large
part of the afternoon going with their big guys--tight ends Ernie
Conwell and Jeff Robinson and 270-pound blocking fullback James
Hodgins. The scheme was designed to protect Warner, who had very
sore ribs, and leaned heavily on Marshall Faulk, who ran for 159
yards. This week? If Warner is healthy, you'll see St. Louis open
it up. If not, you'll see more of what Philadelphia got.

New England's attack also hinges on the health of its
quarterback. Tom Brady left late in the second quarter of the
win over the Steelers with an injured left ankle. On the four
snaps he took in the first half Drew Bledsoe achieved legendary
status, so much so that there is speculation that Belichick
might start him against the Rams, a bit of mystery I'm sure the
coach will keep alive right till kickoff.

Let's look at this logically. In his first series Bledsoe
completed three passes, the last one for a touchdown. After that,
however, he was 7 of 18 for 66 yards, and he produced points on
only one of six possessions, a field goal. Even worse, the
protection, geared to Brady's quicker release, broke down at
times, having to adjust to Bledsoe's habit of holding the ball.

My guess is, if he's healthy enough, Brady will start. A
Patriots victory wouldn't shock me, given the kind of roll
they're on. But the St. Louis defense is on one too. Call it
27-24, Rams.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO Look out Aeneas Williams and the Rams' defense are on a roll.