- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

HOUSTON — Two years later, nothing has changed. Tom Brady knows how to run the two-minute offense, Adam Vinatieri knows how to make a clutch field goal and the New England Patriots know how to win a Super Bowl.

Boy, do they know how to win a Super Bowl.

For the second time in three years, the Patriots produced a dramatic, last-ditch scoring drive on the NFL’s grandest stage. Brady marched his team 37 yards in 59 seconds, Vinatieri drilled a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left and New England pulled off a thrilling 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

The script was nearly identical to the one that played out two years ago in New Orleans, when Brady engineered a last-minute drive against the St. Louis Rams and Vinatieri connected from 48 yards out as time expired to give the Patriots their first Lombardi Trophy.

Only the site of the dramatics changed; this time it took place before 71,525 fans at Reliant Stadium who were left breathless by perhaps the greatest (and certainly the wildest) Super Bowl ever played.

“What a game, what a game. Fitting for the Super Bowl, I guess,” said Brady, who won MVP honors after completing a game-record 32 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns. “To win this the way we did, it’s just incredible.”

New England’s 15th-straight victory — a single-season mark bested only by the 1972 Miami Dolphins (who won all 17 games they played) — included as many twists and turns as you’re ever likely to see in a game of this magnitude. What began as a tense, defensive struggle turned into a stunning display of fireworks over the final 15 minutes.

When the fourth quarter began, New England led 14-10. From that point on, two teams known primarily for their defensive prowess combined to score 37 points, trading blows like champion prize fighters.

The Patriots were the last ones standing, thanks to Brady’s game-winning drive.

With the score tied 29-29 and 1:08 left, New England’s offense took over at its 40 (the result of John Kasay’s kickoff going out of bounds). Brady immediately completed three passes — one to Troy Brown, one to Daniel Graham and one to Deion Branch (10 catches, 143 yards), putting the ball at the Carolina 23 with nine seconds left.

“Tom’s a winner,” coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s a quarterback’s job, to do what he did, and Tom does it better than anybody.”

Out came Vinatieri, who was nearly the goat after missing two first-half field goals. There was no doubt about his 41-yard game-winner — it sailed straight through the uprights, and after the Panthers’ final kickoff return went nowhere, the Patriots stormed the field in mad celebration.

“It’s incredible,” Vinatieri said. “Most guys never get to play in this game, let alone have two opportunities for game-winners.”

The final drive was only the capper to a spectacular fourth quarter, one that saw the Patriots (17-2) take a seemingly safe 11-point lead on the second play from scrimmage.

Carolina (14-6), though, showed grit in rallying to take its own lead. Backup tailback DeShaun Foster scampered 33 yards down the left sideline to make it 21-16 with 12:39 to go. Minutes later, Jake Delhomme connected with Muhsin Muhammad for an 85-yard touchdown pass (the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history), and suddenly Carolina had a 22-21 lead.

The Patriots retook the lead with a 68-yard drive, ending with Brady’s 1-yard touchdown pass to linebacker-turned-tight end Mike Vrabel. But the Panthers stormed back and tied the game on Delhomme’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl.

With 1:08 left, the Super Bowl appeared to be headed to overtime for the first time. But Brady and Co. had other plans.

“They just got the ball last,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “If we had a little more time, it might have been different.”

The late dramatics made up for an ugly first half.

They asked for defense and defense they got, for nearly 27 minutes. With less than three minutes to go in the second quarter, the game remained scoreless — the longest a Super Bowl had ever gone without a point being registered.

Try as they might to figure out Belichick’s defensive scheme, the Panthers simply could not advance the ball through most of the first half. Carolina’s first six offensive drives resulted in minus-9 net yards and only one first down (by way of penalty).

The Patriots managed to put together a couple of drives but were done in by a sudden case of the shanks by one of the NFL’s most-reliable kickers. Vinatieri pushed a 31-yard field goal attempt wide right early in the first quarter, then had a 36-yard attempt blocked by Shane Burton midway through the second quarter.

As tight as things were, this game figured to turn on its first major mistake. Sure enough, when Vrabel stripped Delhomme from behind and teammate Richard Seymour fell on the ball at the Carolina 20, the Patriots had their first big break.

Four plays later, Brady ran a beautiful play-fake and found Branch alone in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown pass. New England finally had a 7-0 lead 26:55 into the game.

Amazing how one play can turn a game from a white-knuckled defensive scrum into a high-flying score-fest. The Panthers, stymied all evening to that point, suddenly sprang to life. Delhomme (who wound up with 323 yards on only 16 completions) connected for four quick passes, the final one a 39-yard scoring strike down the left sideline to Steve Smith, and Carolina had itself a 95-yard touchdown drive (tied for second-longest in Super Bowl history).

Things were only starting to heat up. With 1:07 left in the half, 78 yards to go and two timeouts remaining, the Patriots produced a quick-strike drive of their own. Branch blew past rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. and hauled in a 52-yard pass from Brady. Three plays later, New England scored on a familiar-looking play — Brady ran play-action and hit David Givens over the middle for a 5-yard touchdown.

With only 18 seconds left in the half, the Patriots should have kicked deep and waltzed into the locker room with a 14-7 lead. But Belichick called for a squib kick, Carolina found itself at its 47, and a 21-yard run by Davis put the Panthers in field-goal range. Kasay calmly drilled a 50-yarder as time expired, and the teams departed with New England’s lead trimmed to 14-10.

Who knew what theatrics would unfold a couple hours later, resulting in a game for the ages?

“They gave us all they had. We gave it all we had,” Patriots cornerback Ty Law said. “We put it in Adam Vinatieri’s hands, and he came through for us.”

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