HOUSTON - The New England Patriots got the kind of game they wanted and barely survived it, but on a night like last night, survival is all that matters.
How you win means nothing on Super Bowl Sunday. All that matters is that you win, which is exactly what the Patriots did on an evening when their defense was shredded in a most unexpected fashion by a most unexpected assailant.
What the NFL’s stingiest defense had hoped for was to shut down the running game of the Carolina Panthers, thus leaving the responsibility for winning Super Bowl XXXVIII in the hands of inexperienced quarterback Jake Delhomme. New England succeeded, limiting the Panthers to 92 yards rushing and holding Stephen Davis to 49 yards on 13 carries. The only run that hurt the Patriots was a 33-yard touchdown jaunt by DeShaun Foster early in the fourth quarter.
By then, New England’s swarming defense had not only shut down the running game Carolina had relied on all season but forced offensive coordinator Dan Henning to hand the ball over to Delhomme. Disaster seemed imminent. It was. Just not exactly the way the Patriots envisioned.
What happened last night was the same thing that has happened so often this season. The Patriots won at the wire, bringing home the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in three years with a 32-29 victory in which there truly were no losers.
The Patriots won their 15th straight game on a 41-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with four seconds to play but not before Delhomme went berserk in the fourth quarter, throwing two touchdown passes and finishing the night 16 of 33 for 323 yards with three scoring throws, including a 12-yard one that tied the game with 1:08 to play.
It was not enough because Tom Brady played even better than Delhomme, winning his second Super Bowl MVP with a 32-of-48 passing performance good for 354 yards and three scores. Yet his biggest plays were not touchdown passes. They were the two throws that set up Vinatieri’s winning field goal, a 13-yard completion to Troy Brown and a 17-yard pass to Deion Branch on third and 3 that moved the ball from outside of Vinatieri’s range to the 23-yard line.
”We made a couple of more plays than they did,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “This is such a special team. To win 15 in a row and defeat all comers, I’m so proud of these players. These guys just keep on fighting.”
So did Delhomme, who led his team to a stunning 19 fourth- quarter points against a defense that had allowed only 14.9 a game all season.
The odd is commonplace for these Patriots, however. Normally their wins came courtesy of a rock-ribbed defense and the perfectly timed offensive play from Brady, but last night was different.
”We could have played better defense but we’re happy with the victory,” Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. “Jake operated very efficiently in the system they have.”
Indeed, although it didn’t look like that at the start. With New England’s defense beating up his runners and confusing him with its coverages, Delhomme had an uncomfortable opening in which he was 5 of 15 for 91 yards with three sacks in the first half.
But he also fired a warning shot just before halftime when he threw a 39-yard scoring pass to Steve Smith with 1:07 left in the second quarter, and then moved his team back downfield again after Brady answered with a 5-yard scoring pass of his own, only to see Delhomme set up a 50-yard John Kasay field goal as time ran out in the half to make it 14-10 New England.
After a cautious third quarter, all hell broke loose in the final 15 minutes, with Delhomme whipping his team down the field and Brady answering at every turn until it ended as it should have - with the Lombardi Trophy back in the hands of Brady.
”Jake Delhomme threw the crap out of the ball on our defense,” Brady said admiringly. “You don’t see that very often, but that’s what happens in the Super Bowl. They make great plays, too.”
They did, but not as many as Brady. Every time Carolina scored on the Patriots, they answered immediately. When Carolina finally put the Patriots behind for the first time in eight games after Delhomme dropped an 85-yard touchdown bomb into the hands of Muhsin Muhammad that made the score 22-21, Brady whipped his team 68 yards on 11 plays, ending the answering drive with a 1-yard touchdown throw to, of all people, linebacker Mike Vrabel.
The Panthers roared back to tie the game on another Delhomme touchdown pass, so what did Brady do? He moved his team downfield under withering pressure to set up the winning kick.
”Tom’s a winner,” Belichick said of Brady, who is now 6-0 in playoff games and 40-12 as a starter. “That’s what the quarterback’s job is. Tom does that as well as anybody.”
Better than anybody at this point, including Delhomme, who did all a man can do and a lot more than was expected of him, and it still wasn’t enough.
With Delhomme trapped on the sideline, Brady got the ball back with 68 seconds to play and the game tied, 29-29. In just 64 seconds, he had moved his team 37 yards to set up the winning kick, using his arm, his head, his heart, and an assist from Kasay, who incredibly mishit the kickoff after Delhomme’s 12-yard pass to Ricky Proehl had tied the game, and drove the ball out of bounds.
That was all the opening Brady needed. Taking over at his own 40, Brady knew he needed just two or three first downs to put Vinatieri in the position he and his teammates feel most comfortable - alive with the game on the line and time running out.
”Adam is a pressure kicker,” Belichick said. “If you’ve got to have one kick with everything on the line he’s the one I want kicking it. That’s what Adam’s here for and he came through for us.”
He did, but before he could Brady had to come through as well, and he did. And before he got the opportunity to do what has become his habit, a kid from Cajun country who no one expected to come through had to as well.
Jake Delhomme did what he had to do last night to win a football game. He had the fate of his team in his hands just the way the Patriots wanted it, and he came through. He just didn’t come through as well as the guy the Patriots put their faith - and their fate - in.
He didn’t quite do what Tom Brady did.
But then, who does?
”Who would you rather have running the two-minute drill in today’s modern football than Tom Brady?” Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis asked rhetorically after the game. There was no need for the easy answer.