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Dan Shaughnessy

Another Patriots championship, and just a little sweeter

HOUSTON -- Groundhog Day.

Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining gave the New England Patriots a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers last night in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

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Yogi Berra would have called it “Deja vu all over again.”

It was all so familiar . . . Vinatieri kicking the game-winner . . . quarterback Tom Brady winning the Most Valuable Player Award . . . coach Bill Belichick and owner Bob Kraft hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy while Patriot players hugged and brushed confetti off one another. All of these things happened two years ago when the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans.

Kraft told the crowd last night, “Fifty-three players, 17 coaches, a head coach -- the heart and soul of our team showed us what the concept of team is all about.”

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Championships are like children -- you love each one equally. But the manner in which the 2003-04 Patriots went about their business makes this title a slightly favored son. The Patriots finished the season with 15 consecutive wins, went 10-0 against winning teams, and went 10 weeks without trailing in a game before the Panthers put them on the ropes last night at Reliant Stadium.

As ever, Brady was Joe Montana-cool under pressure. With the game tied and a little more than a minute to play, he moved the Patriots 37 yards in six plays, setting up Vinatieri’s winner. The clutch kicker had missed a 31-yard chip shot, and had another attempt blocked, but his final boot was straight and true.

”Maybe a little deja vu of two years ago,” said Vinatieri. “The fellows moved the ball downfield and we had the opportunity to win it again. This never gets old. With this type of venue and the pressure on, it’s never easy, but you try to block all the external things out and kick it. I’ll cherish this for a long time.”

Meanwhile, what’s left for Brady? John Kerry’s running mate? First man on Mars? Starting pitcher for the Red Sox when they finally win a World Series? The 26-year-old golden child becomes the youngest two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and one of only four players to win the MVP Award twice. He completed 32 of 48 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns. He is 6-0 lifetime in playoff games.

”The guys made some great catches there on that last drive,” said Brady. “And Adam drove that sucker right down the middle to win it. What a game. Fitting for the Super Bowl, I guess.”

When the Patriots trailed for the first time since before Thanksgiving, Brady moved them 68 yards on 11 plays and regained the lead with a 1-yard touchdown pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel. When the Panthers roared back to tie the game, Brady responded again.

”It was an awesome year,” said Belichick. “I can’t say enough about the players. We finished the game with two backup safeties. That’s the way it’s been all year.”

So now it’s Groundhog Day, where the scene keeps repeating itself, much like in the Bill Murray movie, but there’s no one left to beat. Too bad. Patriots fans surely would embrace six more weeks of football. In the wake of the coldest January since 1888, and the most disappointing Red Sox finish since 1986, New England needed a lift, and the Patriots delivered with a season for the ages.

In the end, the Super Bowl win was like so many others in this magical Patriots season. The Patriots failed to overwhelm their opponents, relied on strong defense, got contributions from the entire roster, and left it to Brady and Vinatieri to come through at the finish. The fact that New England’s final touchdown pass was caught by a linebacker tells you much of what you need to know about this team.

By any measure, these Patriots go into the books as one of the best and most beloved Boston sports teams of the last 100 years. Not since the Larry Bird Celtics of 1984 and ‘86 has a local team won two championships in three seasons. The Bruins last did it in 1970 and ‘72 and the Red Sox haven’t turned the trick since 1916 and ‘18.

The 2003-04 Patriots featured one of the best defenses in league history, used 42 different starters, had only two Pro Bowlers, and took pride in selflessness and interchangeable parts. At times, it looked as if they had 11 coaches on the field. They transformed their two-year-old stadium into the happiest place on earth.

The camaraderie of the Patriots was evident at the start again last night. Troy Brown, the senior Patriot in continuous service, led the AFC champions onto the field. And as they did two years ago, the Patriots poured out of their tunnel en masse -- a show of unity that was copied by the Panthers. It was clear at this moment that the Super Bowl would be like another home game for Belichick’s team. Patriot Nation made its presence felt and there were moments when Reliant Stadium sounded like the football theater off Route 1 in Foxborough.

It started out like a World Cup game and was still 0-0 with a little more than three minutes to play in the first half. But Brady threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final three minutes and Carolina’s Jake Delhomme started to move his team and New England led, 14-10, at intermission.

After a ribald halftime show featuring Janet Jackson, play was interrupted briefly when a streaker managed to line up with the Panthers for the opening kickoff. He was chased by authorities and eventually brought down when Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham put a shoulder into him. Needless to say, Belichick was not amused.

It got wild again after a scoreless third quarter. The teams traded touchdowns early in the fourth. After a Brady interception, the Panthers struck again on the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, an 85-yard pass from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad. Carolina led, 22-21, with 6:53 left.

Brady went to work and it was madness the rest of the way. As always, the Patriots came through in the clutch.

No doubt there will be whispers of “dynasty.” The well-managed, brilliantly coached Patriots are in position to make it back to the national stage in Jacksonville next year. In the meantime, there are rings on order and the Patriots will be feted in City Hall’s canyon of heroes tomorrow.

”None of this would be possible without the fans back in Boston,” Brady shouted from the podium. “We’ll be back [tomorrow] for the parade!”

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