Panthers have gleam in eyes, on fingers

HOUSTON -- Although some will suggest it was more conspiracy than coincidence, the three Carolina Panthers veterans who sported gaudy Super Bowl rings upon their arrival here Sunday evening insisted they never once huddled to hatch a surreptitious plot, one that was unwittingly rife with symbolism for the underdog NFC champions.

Then again, center Jeff Mitchell acknowledged, he almost never wears the ring he earned as a member of the Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore Ravens. Unless maybe he is trying to impress neighbors back home in Florida or make an impression on some of his young Carolina teammates.

"It just kind of happened," said Mitchell, flashing the shiny hunk of Super Bowl bling. "I mean, none of us talked about doing it, honest. But we all showed up [at the airport] with the rings on, and a lot of guys sure started noticing them. It'll get your attention."

There are three other Carolina players -- tight end Jermaine Wiggins, wide receiver Ricky Proehl and offensive tackle Matt Willig -- who own Super Bowl rings awarded them from other clubs. All but Willig donned their past championship spoils. And coach John Fox, who also claimed ignorance when asked about the coincidence, had on the NFC title ring he won when he was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2000.

If the convergence of clustered carats was indeed unplanned, it didn't go unnoticed, and the Panthers certainly descended on this city with a collective gleam in their eyes. It was as if the Panthers, even if unrehearsed, sought to bring with them a ring of legitimacy to their upset chances.

The Super Bowl hardware broken out of safety deposit boxes by the three players was a graphic representation of the burgeoning confidence with which Carolina seems to be approaching the game.

Just as the New England Patriots had during an earlier news conference, the Panthers sure went out of their way to hammer home the point that they are here on a mission, and with a palpable sense of unfinished business.

That said, upstart Carolina was noticeably looser than its New England counterparts. That is not to say the Patriots, in the Super Bowl for a second time in three seasons, were tight. Just tighter-lipped, that's all, in the traditional arrival press session.

First impressions mean nothing, of course, during Super Bowl week. But on numerous occasions during his 20-minute briefing, Patriots coach Bill Belichick echoed this theme with which he must have bludgeoned his players last week: The only history that means anything is the history created next Sunday night.

Staying within his public persona, Belichick appeared stentorian at times, dodging and feinting and trying hard to answer every question with little more than a generic response. Belichick is purposely bland in such situations, convinced that any hint of news might provide his opponent an advantage, real or imagined.

Countless times, he referred to the Panthers as "an excellent team" and to any of his own players about whom he was queried "a good football player." How focused is Belichick already? An hour late because of travel delays, he apologized, then asked if the tardiness was five minutes or 30 minutes.

Make no mistake, while the three Carolina veterans were slipping on their Super Bowl rings, the Patriots were pulling on their game faces already.

"I don't buy into the [stuff] about how we're going to be complacent, that we're a team that is satisfied just making it this far," said Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "Look, a couple weeks from now, nobody will even remember who lost the game. But, hey, we like to have a little fun getting ready for a big game."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.