HOUSTON - Perhaps the term déjà vu was coined with this game in mind.
Ricky Proehl catches a late touchdown pass to tie the game up, just like he did two years ago as a Ram. Tom Brady takes over with just over a minute left in the game, just like he did two years ago as a Patriot. Adam Vinatieri was called upon to kick a championship-winning field goal from over forty yards with less than ten seconds left, just like he did two years ago as a Patriot.
Vinatieri nailed the 41-yard kick. Patriots are Super Bowl champions.
Just like two years ago.
A taut defensive struggle suddenly morphed into a frenetic display of offense, with New England's methodical approach just three points better than Carolina's blitzkrieg attack. The Patriots expected a tough game, but this game was beyond tough. It was fraught with tension and sheer anxiety, and you perhaps knew back in the third quarter that the winner of this game would be the one who had the ball last.
Actually, the Panthers had the ball last. With four seconds left, Rod Smart took a kickoff at the 2. He Hate Me ran 20 yards, and took the game clock with him. The Patriots don't hate he. Patriots 32, Panthers 29. Another Vince goes in Bob Kraft's trophy case. Another victory parade is in order.
And here's hoping that hospital emergency rooms across New England and the Carolinas didn't have a ton of emergency calls for patients suffering from myocardial infarctions. (That's "heart attacks", for those of you Tampa linemen who don't know this sport as well as you think.) If you could have possibly found a game to top Super Bowl XXXVI in terms of drama and excitement, Super Bowl XXXVIII did all that and more.
And once again, you have another Super Bowl which may be called the "best ever".
Winning the championship will insulate the Patriots from whiny fans who will complain about a rather subpar defensive effort in the last 31 minutes of the game. Jake Delhomme, in a sensational performance in defeat, riddled the stout Patriot defense for 323 yards and three touchdown passes. He was suffocated for the bulk of the first half, which is why his completion percentage was one below .500 at 16 of 33. But when Delhomme got going, the Patriots were literally powerless to stop him.
The trademark of Delhomme and his Panther offense in this game was twofold: long drives, quick drives. The longest scoring drive for the Panthers took 2:10. The scoring drives for Carolina read: 95, 21, 81, 90, 80 yards (the 21 was at the tail end of the first half, where the Patriots special teams and defense practically let the Panthers have a 50-yard field goal by John Kasay as time ran out). It was a bombardment the likes of which the Patriots have not seen all year long.
Two elements were central in how the game changed from a defensive struggle into an offensive explosion. Both defenses likely expended most of their energy in the first half, and the incredible defensive stops both sides were making took away from what they could do in the second half. The other thing that affected the game was the decision to put Ty Law on Muhsin Muhammad and Tyrone Poole on Steve Smith. Both men burned the Patriots for long touchdown passes, and one has to wonder if they would have happened had the cornerback assignments been switched.
Just after the Patriots scored late in the first half to make it 7-0, the Panthers came right back and drove from their five to the Patriot 39 in just six plays. On the ninth play, Smith blew past Poole down the left sideline and hauled in a perfect touchdown pass. The 95-yard drive was the second longest in Super Bowl history.
Then about halfway through the final quarter, following a Brady pick in the end zone, Delhomme heaved one deep down the left sideline towards Muhammad. Law was playing zone and let him go one-on-one with Eugene Wilson. Muhammad had two steps on him and hauled in the scoring pass. It covered 85 yards, the longest scoring play in Super Bowl history.
How impressive was the Panther turnaround? The first five Panther drives ended in punts. Four of these were three-and-outs. The sixth ended in a Delhomme fumble which set up the first Patriot touchdown. When the game had ended, the last three Panther drives ended in touchdowns. Five of the last seven Panther drives ended in scores.
Brady's approach to the game was typical Brady, at least in number of plays run. The Patriots had an 83-49 edge in total offensive plays run. They had nearly a 2-1 edge in time of possession. But this is a little misleading, in that the scoring drives for Carolina took such little time, and even the Patriots didn't take a ton of time themselves. In fact, in a fit of irony, the two longest Patriot drives ended in a missed field goal and an interception.
Still, Brady was able to eventually dent the Panther defense with shorter passes mixed in with typical Brady cool. Delhomme answered every Patriot scoring drive with one of his own, but Brady was every bit the equal. Troy Brown made a case for the Patriots to not release him in the offseason due to cap reasons with eight tough catches, 76 yards, and a mean nosebleed. Deion Branch had ten grabs for 143 yards, and seemed to emerge as Brady's new go-to guy. David Givens had five catches for 69 yards, and Daniel Graham had a richly satisfying four grabs (and no drops) for 46 yards, including a 33-yard grab which helped set up an Antowain Smith touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
There wasn't any one real standout play, other than perhaps Branch's 52-yard catch late in the first half, which was a defining moment in the game for Brady. You might say that if you could point to one key play, then why not make it his final touchdown pass of the evening. The recipient was…Mike Vrabel. It was his second career touchdown grab, but it was the first offensive touchdown by a defensive player since William "Refrigerator" Perry insulted the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It made the score 27-22 Patriots, and the Nor'easters went up by seven thanks to a direct snap to Kevin Faulk, who ran it in for the two-point conversion.
As the teams exchanged touchdowns, you just knew that this game would come down to Vinatieri. He was 0 for 2 going into his final kick, slicing a 31-yarder wide right in the first quarter and having a 36-yarder blocked in the second quarter. After Proehl's touchdown from 12 yards out to make it 29-29 with 1:08 left, you just knew what was coming. Thirteen less seconds, but three more timeouts and 27 less yards.
You just knew. Brown for 13 yards. Brown for 13 yards. Graham for 4 yards. Givens for 17 yards. Nine seconds.
Boom. Just as straight as his 48-yarder two years ago Tuesday. Another title for the Patriots. You just knew.
The Patriots return home, ready to climb back into those duck boats, ready to face millions of fans in Government Center once again. Hopefully Bill Belichick and Brady have taken some dancing lessons. It's party time again, and the Patriots are once again the best team in the world.
You can start talking dynasty all you want, and you can start mentioning Brady (again the MVP of the Super Bowl) and Belichick among the game's best. You can continue to marvel at how cool these Patriots are when it matters the most.
This column said that if Vinatieri were ever called upon again to nail a Super Bowl-winning kick, he'd do it. And if it comes up again next year, well, you just know.
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