Panthers, Patriots quietly make their arrivals

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 26, 2004

HOUSTON - With his crisply knotted blue power tie and sharply tailored blue blazer, Ty Law could've been mistaken for a CEO.

But no, he's just a CB - a cornerback on a business trip.

Law's New England Patriots and the surprising Carolina Panthers began the biggest business trip of the season Sunday when they arrived in Houston to start the weeklong countdown to the Super Bowl.

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''We're here to do a job,'' Law explained. ''We can go hang with the 'in' crowd when we're done playing.''

For the better part of the last three decades, the NFL's title game has been as much about the hoopla leading to kickoff as the game itself. The goal for the players and coaches has been figuring out how to handle the distractions and still be ready for the game.

Different coaches have handled things in different ways. Chuck Noll won four titles by rarely setting curfews and actually encouraging the Pittsburgh Steelers to soak in the atmosphere. Bill Walsh dressed up like a bellman to loosen up the 49ers on their first Super Bowl trip. Other coaches, especially in more recent years, have preferred more structure, less fun.

Both John Fox of the Panthers and Bill Belichick of the Patriots were using the business-trip mantra with their players, and neither was making any apologies for it.

''We're not here to go sightseeing, we're here to play Carolina,'' said Belichick, who led the Pats to the title two seasons ago. ''I don't know how anyone could take this any other way.''

Still, there are perks to making a Super Bowl. Near the top of the list for these teams was a respite from the weather.

The Patriots arrived in Texas about an hour behind schedule - ''How late are we? A minute? Five minutes?'' Belichick said - but not before saying goodbye to about a month straight of cold, nasty weather. The temperature in Boston on Sunday: 2 degrees, about 68 degrees colder than in Houston.

The Panthers, meanwhile, were sent off by about 10,000 fans who braved a nasty sleet storm to line the streets of Charlotte and wish their team luck.

''I woke up this morning and was like, 'It's snowing?''' linebacker Will Witherspoon said. ''Then, to see all the people, all the fans, supporting you, you just tell yourself, 'Man, let's bring this home. Let's show them what they're out there in the cold for, what they're cheering for.'''

Almost all the Panthers brought video cameras to record moments from the first Super Bowl appearance in the nine-year-old franchise's existence. The same was true of the Patriots, many of whom went down this road just two years ago, but wanted to capture some memories, nonetheless.

Yet despite the moments of fun, both teams talked as if they're girding for a hard week of work.

''I think everyone has to know that this is a business,'' Panthers receiver Steve Smith said.

The Panthers surprised almost everyone and went 14-5 this season, including playoff wins at St. Louis and Philadelphia.

Carolina is a 7-point underdog against New England, which is on a 14-game winning streak, a run equaled only by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 17-0.

''Fourteen straight wins, it's pretty incredible,'' Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.

But he knows if they don't get the 15th, it will be Carolina that everyone remembers from this season.

That disappointment of falling one win short was on the minds of several players and coaches during short interview sessions Sunday. That may have explained why there was so much sincere talk about the biggest football celebration of the year being nothing more than a business trip for these guys.

''A lot of these guys haven't experienced the Super Bowl the same way I have,'' said Law, a nine-year veteran who also lost a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 1997. ''When you lose, that's a terrible feeling, and nobody wants to go through it.''