Fresh Meat for the Super Bowl

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The NFL's two league championship pairings are set, but it certainly isn't the same old crowd. After Sunday's games, in which defending champ Dallas lost to the expansion Carolina Panthers, 26-17, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were flattened by the New England Patriots 28-3, both of last year's Super Bowl teams were out of the hunt. "It's a new order in the NFL," said Panthers linebacker Kevin Greene, "and I'm tickled to death about it." No matter how next week's matchups turn out, this year's Super Bowl will be the first since 1991 without either the Cowboys or the 49ers on the field. Playing in their first-ever playoff game, the NFC West-champion Panthers (13-4) were three-point underdogs against the Cowboys, but made it a perfect nine-for-nine at Ericsson Stadium. Michael Irvin, the Cowboys' troubled star and go-to receiver, got a game's worth of alibi when he went down with a fractured collarbone on Dallas' first possession. The Carolina defense did the rest, intercepting Troy Aikman twice in the fourth quarter and holding Emmit Smith to 80 yards on 22 carries as they allowed only six points in the second half, to set up their playoff game against Green Bay. In a fog-bound game at Foxboro, the "Blitzburgh" Steelers saw the frenzied defense that has been their strength turned against them. "They only had one blitz that surprised us," Patriots fullback Keith Byars said. It certainly wasn't on the Patriot's opening offensive play, when Drew Bledsoe took the snap, stepped back, and calmly uncorked a 53-yard bomb to Terry Glenn that produced a touchdown on the very next play. The Patriots never looked back, leading 21-0 with five minutes left in the first half and getting 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Curtis Martin. The Patriots will host red-hot Jacksonville next Sunday. Whatever the results, this year's Super Bowl in New Orleans is sure to be. . . different. The Packers, though marked for success this season, haven't played for the title since the infancy of the league. The Patriots haven't been this far since 1985-86, when they were fed to the Chicago Bears 46-10. And Carolina and Jacksonville, in only their second year in the league, well, they haven't been anywhere before. At least there'll be something new on TV this year.