- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The New England Patriots don’t believe in parity.

Led by coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Deion Branch, the Patriots defied conventional wisdom again, becoming just the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years as they held off the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX last night at Alltel Stadium.

Belichick improved his playoff record to 10-1, passing legendary coach Vince Lombardi for the best postseason mark in NFL history. Brady, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, improved to 9-0 in the playoffs but lost out on a third Super Bowl MVP to Branch, who gained 133 yards on a record-tying 11 catches.

“Deion made some huge plays,” Belichick said of the third-year receiver, who had 10 catches for 143 yards in last year’s 32-29 Super Bowl victory over Carolina. “He plays his best in big games.”

That’s characteristic of the Patriots, who suffocated Indianapolis’ top-ranked offense in a 20-3 divisional round victory, turned on the firepower in a 41-27 AFC Championship game triumph in Pittsburgh and then beat Philadelphia on both sides of the ball.

“I can’t think of three tougher teams, but we beat all comers,” said Belichick, the fourth coach to win three Super Bowls.

The Patriots matched the Dallas Cowboys from 1992, 1993 and 1995 as the only team to win three Super Bowls in such a brief span and joined the 1997-98 Denver Broncos as the only repeat champions in the 11-year salary cap era. Still, they adamantly refused to use the word “dynasty.”

“We’ve never used that word, but three out of four ain’t bad,” said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who’s leaving for Notre Dame.

The first Super Bowl to be tied after three quarters didn’t remain that way for long. Smartly mixing the run and the pass, New England drove 66 yards in nine plays with backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk doing most of the work. Dillon punched the ball over from the 2 with 13:44 left to put the Patriots ahead to stay at 21-14.

New England added to the lead on its next possession when Branch snagged a 19-yard pass and Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon was flagged for roughing Brady, moving the ball to the Eagles 16. Adam Vinatieri, who hit the game-winning field goals in the Patriots’ two previous Super Bowl victories, then kicked a 22-yarder for a 24-14 lead with 8:40 to go.

New England couldn’t relax, however. Donovan McNabb pushed Philadelphia 79 yards in 13 plays, with wideout Greg Lewis whipping backup safety Dexter Reid for the 30-yard catch that closed the deficit to 24-21 with 1:48 left.

Christian Fauria recovered David Akers’ onside kick, and when the Eagles got the ball back, they were at their 4 with 46 seconds remaining. Philadelphia’s last chance ended when veteran safety Rodney Harrison intercepted McNabb for the second time with nine seconds left.

McNabb completed 30 of 51 passes for 357 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.

“No one ever gave us a chance, but I bet you everyone was on the edge of their seats when we went back out there,” said McNabb, who found Terrell Owens nine times for 122 yards in the receiver’s return from a fractured right fibula. “[But] three interceptions … turnovers kill you.”

The momentum the Patriots carried into halftime continued in the third quarter, thanks in large part to tremendous pass protection against Philadelphia’s omnipresent blitzes.

Brady found Branch three times — including twice on third down — on the drive for gains of 23, 15 and 21, and at least once he could have scanned the stands for girlfriend Bridget Moynahan before letting the ball go. Linebacker Mike Vrabel capped the drive by turning tight end again, fending off defensive end Jevon Kearse to haul in his second touchdown catch in as many Super Bowls. With just 3:56 gone in the half, New England led 14-7.

“We couldn’t really get into a rhythm offensively [early], but we made some critical plays on third down in the second half,” Brady said. “The first drive of the third quarter was pretty important.”

The Eagles, trailing for the first time this postseason, responded with a 10-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that deadlocked the game again with 3:35 remaining in the third quarter. McNabb connected on eight of nine passes for 63 yards on the march, which concluded with a 10-yard completion to running back Brian Westbrook that the Pro Bowl quarterback squeezed between Vrabel and Reid, in for the injured Eugene Wilson.

The first quarter ended scoreless, but Philadelphia scored on its first possession of the second. The Eagles began the drive at their 19, and Todd Pinkston had receptions of 17 and 40 yards as McNabb moved the Eagles downfield. Westbrook scooted left for 11, and on third-and-goal from the 6, McNabb froze a couple of pass-rushers, and L.J. Smith got a step on Roman Phifer to haul in the touchdown pass in the middle of the end zone. With 9:55 left in the half, the underdogs had a 7-0 lead.

The deficit seemed to wake up the defending champions, who reeled off three first downs in four plays. Finally across midfield, Brady hit receiver David Givens for 13 to the Philadelphia 32. Cornerback Sheldon Brown knocked the ball out, but the fumble call was challenged successfully by Belichick. Given the reprieve, Dillon brilliantly cut back for 25. But with the Patriots on the verge of tying the game two plays later, Brady committed his first turnover in three playoff games this season, botching a handoff to Faulk that Darwin Walker recovered for the Eagles at the 13.

However, Brady got hot after a short punt by the Eagles, completing five of six passes for 34 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown toss to Givens, who beat cornerback Lito Sheppard in the back right corner of the end zone with 1:10 left in the half. Givens has caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive postseason games, tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history.

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