HOUSTON -- Moments before Super Bowl XXXVIII, in the privacy of the Patriots’ locker room at Reliant Stadium, Bill Belichick finally released his tongue from the captivity of his teeth. The reserved coach, whose every public uttering is calculated, lit a fire under his team by lighting into the Carolina Panthers during a stirring pregame speech.
”I always believe he saves the best for last,” tight end Christian Fauria said. “The speech was basically like, `We kept our mouths shut, we didn’t say anything, now it’s time to get to business.’ I don’t want to go into exactly what he said, but we just knew that the show was over, being politically correct was over, and we knew what we had to do no matter what we were saying to the press. When we came out there, you could tell we were ready to fight those guys right on the field.”
According to one player, Belichick told the team how tired he had grown of talk about how good the Panthers were, in particular Kris Jenkins and Ricky Manning, and how offended he was by the comparison of Carolina to New England. According to the player, who divulged details on the condition of anonymity, Belichick said something to the effect of, “Everybody’s talking about the how Panthers are similar to us. They’re not us. They’ll never be [expletive] us. They’ll never be champions. We’re the [expletive] champions, and the trophy is coming back where it belongs.”
”It was the most emotional I’ve seen him,” the player said. “He let it hang out. It was real. We wanted to go out there and kill somebody.”
The Panthers didn’t die easily. The Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years, 32-29, and 15th consecutive game on Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal with four seconds to go. New England became the first team since the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins to win that many successive games to end a season.
The Patriots did it by focusing on the next game. Since there are no more games, last night they finally were able to step back and appreciate their body of work.
”Pretty darn good. Pretty darn good,” Tedy Bruschi said. “That’s something that just isn’t done in this era. To win 15 in a row in a league where the talent is so good on every single team, with free agency and players moving. I think we proved a team can be dominant in this era.”
”Wow,” Richard Seymour said. “Fifteen wins in a row. I mean, that’s beautiful. We could have lost some of those football games, but week in and week out it was about our preparation, it was about our execution, it was about being battle tested. From Day One, the work that we put in, we deserve everything that we’re getting. For the most part we stayed consistent as a football team. We stayed on an even keel. I’m still kind of speechless. Fifteen wins in a row. I really don’t know. I don’t know what it means.”
For two weeks Belichick maintained that 14 wins meant nothing without the 15th. As he clutched the Vince Lombardi Trophy at midfield after the game, Belichick finally acknowledged the existence of a streak previously unthinkable in the salary-cap era.
”It was a great team effort,” he said. “We’ve done it 15 weeks in a row. This team met all comers this year, 15 straight. And there’s been some heart attacks, but they came out on top.”
Fitting, then, that 37 of the game’s 61 points were scored in the fourth quarter. Carolina’s DeShaun Foster trimmed a 21-10 New England lead to 5 points on a 33-yard touchdown scamper. Carolina took a 1-point lead (22-21) -- the first against the Patriots since Nov. 23, here against the Texans -- with an 85-yard touchdown connection between Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad.
New England regained the lead, 29-22, on Most Valuable Player Tom Brady’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Mike Vrabel, who also contributed two sacks and a forced fumble. Carolina answered on Ricky Proehl’s tying 12-yard touchdown catch with 1:08 remaining.
Plenty enough time for Brady and Co., who, as usual, performed under pressure, some of which was alleviated by John Kasay’s kickoff out of bounds.
”A critical, critical play in the game,” Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. “That made the play calling a little bit easier. Now instead of having to go 40 or 50 yards, now we only had to go 30 yards. If we got to the 30, we knew Adam had a chance of making it.”
The Patriots went 37 yards in five plays to set up Vinatieri from 41. Vinatieri, who kicked a 48-yarder as time expired to beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, earlier had missed twice (one blocked). Still, there wasn’t any doubt on the Patriots’ sideline.
”Most people never get an opportunity to play in this game,” Vinatieri said, “let alone have an opportunity to put the last points on the board. Honestly, I’m just so fortunate to be on such a great team.”
Arguably one of the finest ever.
”It’s just been a fairy tale season,” said Rodney Harrison, who suffered a broken right arm and, along with fellow safety Eugene Wilson (groin), was out of the game when Carolina tied the score. “I can’t put into words what I’m feeling. The fact that we won 15 in a row, I can tell you, we never looked ahead. We always took one game at a time, and this was a one-game season for us. We worked so hard, we went through so much adversity to get here. We worked hard and got the job done.”
Brady became the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls and two Most Valuable Player awards. He took home another Pete Rozelle Trophy by passing for 354 yards and three touchdowns on a Super Bowl-record 32 completions, including 10 for 143 yards to Deion Branch.
The Patriots’ undermanned and underrated offensive line did not allow a sack of Brady to Carolina’s feared front four, and created enough space in the Panthers’ defense for New England to run for 127 yards.
”I’ve never been a part of such a gritty team,” Antowain Smith said. “Whatever we went up against, we always found a way to win the game. We’ve got a bunch of players that believe in each other. Fifteen wins in a row, that’s something that I never imagined I’d be a part of. It was hard, but we did it.”