Patriots, Panthers get on the move

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2004

HOUSTON The Super Bowl teams arrived in Houston on Sunday happy to be out of the nasty weather and ready to get on with business.

The New England Patriots got into town about one hour late, although nobody was quite sure why.

Not even coach Bill Belichick.

''How late are we, a minute? Five minutes?'' he asked.

More like 60 minutes. Belichick simply shrugged.

NFL coaches are not enamored of anything that disrupts their schedules, which usually are planned down to the second. But this day was not reserved for anything except travel to balmy Houston from the frigid Northeast and from sleet-ridden Charlotte for the Panthers.

''It's great to see the sun shine and no snow on the ground,'' Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said.

Several hundred fans were at Logan Airport to wish the Patriots well, something quarterback Tom Brady found ''amazing.''

''I couldn't wait to get out of there. It was freezing,'' Brady said. ''It's been cold up there for five weeks.

''The fans were amazing. They all came out there with paint on their faces.''

In temperatures far below Houston's 70 degrees.

The only news from the Panthers was that running back Stephen Davis did not practice at all last week, but he will this week and won't appear on the injured list.

Before taking off from home, the Panthers took a 15-block detour on their way to the airport through the heart of Charlotte.

About 10,000 fans braved the inclement weather to attend the sendoff. It took 25 minutes for the five-bus convoy to crawl down the main street as music played, fans waved signs and one overzealous supporter jogged alongside the buses bare-chested with a Panthers flag.

As the players arrived at the stadium, about 300 fans stood outside the gate applauding every arrival. Ace Davis, aka ''Captain Panther'' at home games, showed up decked out in a game jersey, a top hat, cape and tail, ignoring the steady stream of wet snow gathering around him.

''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.'''

But the Panthers weren't getting carried away by the festivities. Panthers coach John Fox echoed his counterpart's sentiment of this being a business trip.

''I don't want them tight. I want them relaxed and focused,'' he said. ''They should treat this much like it's a test.''

The Patriots did precisely that two years ago, upsetting the St. Louis Rams. This time, they are seven-point favorites and riding a 14-game winning streak equaled only by the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Do they carry any sort of a swagger with such a strong resume? Not this bunch.

Mention the winning streak and they have the same reaction: So what?

''Winning 14 in a row or whatever, it's tremendous,'' Harrison said. ''But it don't matter how many games you win, ultimately it's about the Super Bowl.''

Which means past achievements and outside influences must be ignored. It's something the Patriots did well in 2002, and something they immediately recognize is the key to success in 2004.

''I told them Super Bowl hype is great, the parties are great, going out to the restaurants and clubs is fun, but there are 51 other weeks to do that,'' said Brady, dressed nattily in a business suit, as were Ty Law, Bobby Hamilton, Christian Fauria and Belichick.

''As soon as we landed, you can see all of the things that can be a distraction,'' Law added. ''But we're here to do a job. We can go hang with the 'in' crowd when we're done playing.''

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