Carolina at Philadelphia

Panthers' offensive scheme

Carolina's offense won't change conceptually whether running back Stephen Davis (quadriceps strain) or DeShaun Foster plays, although the Panthers will try to use Foster's speed on the outside more.

They want to pound the ball, but will go to three receivers with confidence. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has been tough in the clutch, producing eight game-winning scores on the team's final possession.

The Panthers' physical offensive line does a better job protecting the quarterback than the Eagles' bigger line, and Carolina has run the ball 104 more times than Philadelphia.

Curiously, the Panthers scored fewer rushing touchdowns (23-9) than the Eagles, but threw more TD passes (19-17). The Eagles will blitz selectively in an attempt to offset their run-defense deficiencies.

Eagles' offensive scheme

Without versatile scatback Brian Westbrook, the Eagles are hard-pressed to find playmakers in a short passing game that is efficient at times and sputters at others. The Eagles throw a lot of short screens and slants, but coach Andy Reid will go deep when he feels he has a good matchup downfield.

That probably will happen today with receivers Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell facing Carolina's small corners. Running back Duce Staley probably won't get many carries, which means quarterback Donovan McNabb will be responsible for whatever running game the Eagles generate.

McNabb's escapability should slow Carolina's pass rush just enough that the Eagles' quick-hitting plays have a chance. But he was sacked 43 times in the regular season and eight more times by Green Bay in the playoffs last week.

Defensive playmakers

The Eagles need cornerback Troy Vincent to rejoin free safety Brian Dawkins in a secondary that has been injury-riddled and vulnerable. They get their biggest push to the quarterback from their defensive tackles, Darwin Walker and Corey Simon.

Worn down by attrition, the Eagles make up for it with schemes and blitzing. The Panthers may have the best defensive line in the game with ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, and tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner, who combined for 24¬ sacks.

The Eagles' offensive line averages 323 pounds to 294 for Carolina's defensive line. The Panthers' defense struggled when middle linebacker Dan Morgan missed time with a concussion, but has regained its clout in the postseason.

Kicking game

John Kasay cost Carolina 10 points in the Week 13 game when he missed three field-goal tries and an extra-point attempt. Other than that, he hit 32 of 35 field-goal tries. The Eagles' David Akers has missed three of his past six field-goal tries and is not as reliable as Kasay from beyond 40 yards.

The Panthers have a Pro Bowl punter in Todd Sauerbrun, but the Eagles' Dirk Johnson dropped five more kicks inside the 20-yard line.

The Eagles' kickers, at least, are familiar with the wind currents in their stadium. Carolina has a better return game with Rod Smart (kickoffs) and Steve Smith (punts), who have a touchdown return apiece. Philadelphia's loss of Westbrook (two punt-return TDs) will hurt field position.

On the sidelines

Reid's strength is his ability to keep his poise and never get flustered. His offense performs in a similar fashion, as evidenced in the comeback win over Green Bay. Reid will have his hands full against Carolina coach John Fox's relentless defense, though.

Carolina's offensive coordinator, Dan Henning, must find a way to keep the blitz schemes of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson from ruining his game plan, no easy task. Reid is a pass-first coach, Fox a run-first coach. The contrast will be glaring.

Prediction

Carolina 27, Philadelphia 25

The Eagles were fortunate to outlast Green Bay and have been lucky to win despite bad run defense late in the season. All that good fortune has to end sometime. This looks like the day. Carolina, in the role of Cinderella, advances to the Super Bowl.

-- Ken Murray

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