- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

HOUSTON.

Where did this Super Bowl come from? I mean, talk about a sleeper. For the first 27 minutes, you would have thought the Canton Bulldogs and the Providence Steam Roller were out there rolling around. All that was missing was a quick kick — or maybe a Statue of Liberty play.

Which perhaps was fitting. Both the Patriots and Panthers, after all, are throwbacks — not so much to the Boring ‘20s as to the ‘70s, when defenses like the Steelers’ Steel Curtain, Dolphins’ No-Names and the Cowboys’ Doomsday ruled. The Vikings had their Purple People Eaters, the Broncos had their Orange Crush … the NFL was a virtual police state in the ‘70s.

That’s what it was like watching New England and Carolina try to score for much of the first half last night. The first six times they had the ball, the Panthers went backward 9 yards. That’s right, in their first six series, they failed to gain positive yardage. One memorable five-play stretch went like this: loss of 2, loss of 11, loss of 2, dropped pass, loss of 7.

The Patriots, meanwhile, were having misadventures of their own. They were picking up first downs, but then they couldn’t kick a field goal — even from gimme distances of 31 (wide right) and 36 (blocked) yards. In a game that figured to be close, the missed opportunities seemed huge.

But then the two teams remembered it was 2004 and settled down to play a Real Football Game, the kind we’d been envisioning for two weeks. In the three minutes before halftime, the Patriots scored two touchdowns, the Panthers a TD and a field goal — and the battle was on.

Who would have guessed that this Super Bowl, which started slower than Bill Belichick’s car in January, would turn out to be so engrossing? Engrossing not because it was played at a particularly high level, but because it had so many twists and turns … and because the two clubs displayed so much resilience.

Who would have guessed after Antowain Smith cracked over from 2 yards out early in the fourth quarter, giving the Patriots a 21-10 cushion, that Carolina would come back with two improbable touchdowns — the first on a 33-yard run by DeShaun Foster, the second on an 85-yard pass to Muhsin Muhammad — to put the Patriots behind for the first time since November (in the very same place, Reliant Stadium)?

Who would have guessed that Tom Brady, the Man Who Would Be Montana, would throw an interception in the end zone while going for the kill shot with 7:39 to go? Who would have guessed that linebacker Mike Vrabel, lining up at the tight end spot, would catch a TD pass almost five minutes later to give New England the lead back, 29-22 (following a successful two-point conversion)?

Who would have guessed Carolina would get up from this near knockout to tie the score with 1:08 remaining on 12-yard off-his-back-foot toss from Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl? And who would have guessed that New England, helped by a kickoff that rolled out of bounds, would get close enough for Adam Vinatieri — whose earlier struggles have already been discussed — to boot yet another field goal for the archives, this one a 41-yarder with four ticks left, to give the Patriots their 15th victory in a row, 32-29, and their second title in three years?

Nobody, that’s who. You couldn’t dream up drama like this. It could only happen in real life.

“There are a lot of guys who get more publicity than Tom Brady — other than his love life,” cracked Pats playcaller Charlie Weis. “But who would you pick to run a two-minute drill at the end of a game?”

Uh, how about Tom Brady? He was magnificent once again in winning his second Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for 354 yards and three touchdowns and taking the Patriots down the field four times in the final quarter. Who has ever done that? And how long will it be before somebody does it again?

“We’d been down before,” Brady said, “so we were just trying to keep our poise. Still, to win the way we did was incredible, unbelievable. That was a heck of a defensive line we were going against — and I had more pressure tonight than I’ve had all year — but we didn’t give up a sack. We fended them off. In fact, we didn’t give up a sack in the entire postseason. That’s just amazing.”

A lot of folks, for some strange reason, dreaded this Super Bowl. They feared it would be low scoring and lacking in the spectacular. But the Patriots and Panthers fooled them. The game took a while to get started, sure, but it was hurtling along at about Mach II by the end. And there was no denying the worthiness of the combatants — particularly the young Panthers, who could have packed it in on any number of occasions but simply refused to lose. Until the clock ran out on them, that is.

In the final analysis, New England was just a little better — a little more experienced, a little more mistake-free, a little more solid. Let’s give the Patriots their due. Their offense, never considered their strength, scored 32 points against a Carolina defense that had been all but strangling opponents in the postseason. Brady and Co. bailed out the Pats’ vaunted defense big-time after it sprang some major leaks in the second half. Once again, the Pats were just good enough, which is how you reel off 15 straight wins.

The Panthers aren’t going anywhere, though. “We’ve got a young football team,” said coach John Fox, “that I think is going to be around awhile.” That’s probably the next-best thing about Super Bowl XXXVIII: There could well be a sequel somewhere down the road.

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