NEW ORLEANS — When the New England Patriots have the ball in Super Bowl XX, they aren't expected to do much with it.
New England is a 10-point underdog because its dull, plodding offense will be matched Sunday against the Chicago Bears' dynamic defense.
And yet, man for man, the Patriots are probably more talented than the Bears.
Some presumably neutral scouts and coaches make these comparisons:
--At quarterback, Tony Eason of the Patriots is a better passer than Chicago's Jim McMahon.
--At running back, with Craig James and three others, New England is faster, younger and deeper than Chicago, whose best runner, Walter Payton, is no longer a long-range threat.
--At the receiving positions, the Patriots are deeper, particularly if Irving Fryar participates. With Stanley Morgan and Stephen Starring at wide receiver, the Patriots are more disciplined and more likely to hold onto the ball than the erratic Bears.
--Finally, the Patriots have the stronger and more effective offensive line. Their left guard, John Hannah, has made some all-time All-Pro teams.
The strange truth about the underdog Patriots is that they come out ahead of the Bears when the teams are compared in the 11 respects that are most frequently measured in pro football: offensive backfield, offensive line, quarterback, receivers, defensive line, linebackers, defensive backfield, special teams, coaching, passing, and the ability to make big plays.
Chicago has a clear-cut advantage in only 3 of the 11: big plays, defensive line, and quarterbacking.
Two categories seem about even: linebacking and coaching.
New England leads in as many as six areas: defensive backfield, offensive backfield, offensive line, passing, receiving, and special teams.
The problem with the Patriots this season is that they haven't played up to their potential.
In particular, Eason hasn't. In part, this is because the Patriots have preferred ground-bound ball-control strategy to passing. They have handled their talented passer as if they question whether he's tough enough for the street fights that pro games often are, especially Bear games.
The New England personality is to play football in a safe and sane way--both offensively and defensively.
Thus the wild-eyed, wild-haired, wild-swinging Bears have become the more famous team. And as an outgrowth of their personality--as personified by McMahon, who is more competitor than passer--they seem the more likely team to win with a few choice items out of their big-play bag.
The Patriots will have to change personality, in some respects, to win. And football coaches don't like to make changes in the tactics and strategy that advance them to championship rounds. They'd rather dance, as they say, with the lady they brung.
The Rams, for instance, chose to stick to their way of doing things in the NFC championship game and paid for it when they couldn't run Eric Dickerson against the Bears.
It can be assumed that the Patriots will also try to run through the Bear defense. They will have had two weeks since their last public appearance to master what worked and discard what didn't work in the Ram blocking schemes.
In any case, they expect more success on the ground than the Rams had.
At the Superdome Sunday when the Patriots line up strong side left, two of their better blockers, tackle Brian Holloway and guard Hannah, will be heading into the power of the Bears' defense: all three Bear linebackers.
Can Hannah, for example, do what others haven't been able to do this season to that side of the Chicago line?
Watching him play guard in the playoffs has been a graduate course in the way to play the position.
Though Hannah is 34 and should soon be over the hill, the man he blocks never seems to get a call.
Holloway, at 26, 6-7 and 288, is younger, bigger and similarly talented, as is the Patriot right tackle, 300-pound Steve Moore. In the Raider game, when he opposed Howie Long on straight-ahead runs, Moore sometimes blew Long all the way back into the secondary.
It seems at least conceivable that the Patriots can run some on the Bears. They're better athletes than the Bears; they'll be blocking. And their runners, notably Craig James, are fast and polished.
The Patriots ran devastatingly with two backfields against Miami--first with James and veteran Tony Collins, then with the 230-pound dreadnoughts, Robert Weathers and Mosi Tatupu.
James is a 216-pound fullback who lines up at halfback in some formations and combines speed, power and the cutting ability of the best NFL runners.
The last time he faced the Bears, James ran away from them on one play, carrying a screen pass 90 yards.
At SMU, James alternated with the Rams' Eric Dickerson. Some people used to wonder whether the Mustangs were wasting Dickerson by using James half the time. Since James reported to the NFL, it has been obvious that SMU really had two jewels.