HOUSTON -- Talk about two ships passing each other on a strange night.
It's fitting that the Panthers and Patriots championship meeting is Feb. 1 and not a standard January Super Bowl. Two years ago, the Panthers were the Titanic, a 1-15 shipwreck. The Patriots were the Good Ship Lollipop, a distinct underdog that upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI with Adam Vinatieri's last second field goal. Two teams couldn't have come from such different waters in just two years.
Heading into the 2001 season, the Panthers internally felt more suited for a Super Bowl run than the Patriots. George Seifert was coming off 8-8 and 7-9 seasons. Seifert loved veterans, which put added burdens on current general manager Marty Hurney, who then just managed their salary cap. Seifert restocked the offensive line with veterans Todd Steussie, Jeff Mitchell and Kevin Donnalley. He added Brentson Buckner, and rookie Dan Morgan to the interior of the defense.
After a season-opening win over the Vikings, the Panthers lost 15 straight and Seifert was off to fishing off the California coast. John Fox took over a veteran team that had more talent than its record indicated, but needed serious restructuring.
"There are a lot of people that were a part of that 1-15 team and the currency for that was the second pick in the draft," Fox said. "I got to reap the benefits of that without going through the pain of it. But we had work to do. You can't change the past; you deal with the present."
Defensive end Julius Peppers was the second pick in the 2002 draft. He became a sack-a-game success in his rookie campaign.
"Julius might have been our most important acquisition just from the standpoint it was our first for John Fox," Hurney said. "We had to get it right."
They got it right because the addition of Peppers gave the Panthers the best young front seven in football. Peppers and Mike Rucker rushed from the ends. Kris Jenkins and Buckner clogged the middle. When healthy, middle linebacker Morgan made plays. The Panthers rose from 1-15 to 7-9, but they were patchwork in the 2002 backfield with Rodney Peete at quarterback and Lamar Smith at running back.
Taking a page from the 1995 Steelers in which Buckner was a member, the Panthers decided to bring in their version of "the Bus." Stephen Davis provided the transportation.
"We needed a running back like Stephen Davis, and just to play together a little bit more," Buckner said. "Last year a lot of guys came together, and we were not even jelling yet. Guys were really just getting to know each other. At the end of the year, we finally started to know what each guy was doing. Adding Stephen Davis was like the last tire that needed to be rotated on the car. Everything has been riding smoothly since then."
The NFL is funny in the sense that the salary cap causes constant turnover. It's how well a general manager handles the turnover as to whether a team improves or drops. Patriots vice president Scott Pioli earned NFL executive of the year honors for bringing in 21 new players, including five new starters, to a 9-7 non-playoff team. Hurney should have finished second. The Panthers actually did less churning of their roster but still got significant impact.
The Panthers have 17 new players on their final 53 and only four new starters from outside the organization -- Davis, quarterback Jake Delhomme, right tackle Jordan Gross and late blooming cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.
"I knew we were going to be better going into this year," Hurney said. "We won four of the last five games last year, so I felt there would be a carryover. In camp, I felt we had something going. It all depended on what came about at quarterback and running back. You knew what Stephen Davis was. You knew he was a perfect fit. But we had a great feeling about Jake."
Delhomme stabilized the quarterback position and had seven two-minute drives that won games in regulation or overtime during the regular season. Davis rushed for 1,444 yards. Jordan added left tackle athleticism and skills at the right tackle position. Manning added an aggressive young corner who eventually emerged as a starter late in the season.
The Panthers established themselves as the dominant team in the NFC South by going 5-1 in division play. Its power running game and aggressive defense worked for three playoff games and a trip to the Super Bowl.
"Anytime you can get two or three difference makers in a year, it can really help," Hurney said.
Bill Belichick and Pioli faced a different task following their 9-7 non-playoff season in 2002. In 2001, the Patriots went against conventional free agency odds and taught the NFL a lesson about constructing a team. About 18 low-priced priced veteran free agents, mostly with experience in Belichick schemes, were brought in to fill out the Super Bowl roster. In 2000, the Patriots shed salary cap casualties and suffered through a 5-11 season. The two-year cap restructuring plan left them with little room other than to sign bargain basement veterans.
The problem with going with short-term fixes in free agency is that it leaves holes on the roster the following year. If the free agents coming in aren't as good as those going out, the team loses steam. That's what happened in 2002. Belichick didn't have the free agent success he did the previous year. He had exhausted his past reference with old members of the Jets and other veterans. Of the more than dozen free agent signings in 2002, only tight end Christian Fauria offered staying power.
Pioli and Belichick refined their techniques. First, they drafted well. Speed was added at the receiver position with Deion Branch and David Givens in the 2002 NFL draft and Bethel Johnson in last year's draft. Daniel Graham, an '02 draft pick, was a threat at tight end.
The trickiest task, though, was retooling a defense that couldn't stop the run and was picked apart against short-passing attacks toward the conclusion of the 2002 season.
"We just didn't have a good year last year," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "We didn't do what we needed to do on a consistent basis. There were some problems we needed to concentrate on at the end of the season. We had to get better versus the run. This year, we (allowed) one 100-yard rusher. That was against Denver. We also had to be more consistent on the pass rush. If you can't stop the run and do other things, the defense is not going to be good."
Pioli concentrated first on the pass defense and the pass rusher. They signed Bears pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, but he blew out an Achilles and was lost for the season. The biggest turnover occurred in the secondary. Four of the top five players in the secondary are new -- cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Asante Samuel and safeties Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison.
Unlike the past, Belichick needed to find new players to fit into his complex system as opposed to those he knew from past teams. His success in finding them has led to a 14-game winning streak and a second Super Bowl appearance. The revamped secondary allowed 53.1 percent completions and 56.2 quarterback rating.
"This was a different group, but at the same time, we brought in some veterans," cornerback Ty Law said. "Tyrone Poole was drafted before me. Rodney Harrison has been to the Pro Bowl. At least I had that support. I knew I could count on those guys. Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel are rookies. At the same time, they could hit. They didn't hit that wall that most rookies hit. They showed their character."
The trade with the Bears for defensive tackle Ted Washington helped to solidify the problem stopping the run even though he missed six games with a broken leg.
"Guys understand what we needed to do to stop the run. This was one of the areas we needed to address," McGinest said.
The Panthers have 20 players remaining from their 1-15 season. The Patriots have 24 from their Super Bowl team. A lot has happened over the past two years to get these two teams to meet.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.