JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The red, white, and blue confetti floated in the sky and dropped ever so gently on their latest field of dreams.
There were hugs, pats on the backs, and family moments with children hugging their hero dads, and wives kissing their hero husbands. There was Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis, the brain trust of the Super Bowl XXXIX champions embracing for the final time, with Weis off to Notre Dame and Crennel off to Cleveland.
The Vince Lombardi Trophy was touched, kissed, and embraced like a loved one.
The New England Patriots, draped in blood, sweat, and tears, won the Super Bowl for the third time in four years, beating the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-21, last night before 78,125 at Alltel Stadium.
”We’re champions now,” said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. “I don’t know about dynasty right now.”
Football historians will look back upon the current run by the Patriots and decide if it is indeed a dynasty. But for now it’s clear that no football team in the world is better.
The Patriots broke a 14-14 tie and took control with two fourth-quarter scores against the Eagles, who couldn’t stop Tom Brady and Co. when it counted most.
Brady, who played with a heavy heart with his 94-year-old grandmother passing away Wednesday, completed 23 of 33 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns for a 110.2 quarterback rating. He was the calm, cool quarterback who had been there and done that. His Eagles counterpart, Donovan McNabb (30 of 51 for 357 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions), looked jittery at times in his Super Bowl debut.
Brady’s favorite target was Deion Branch, who tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches for 133 yards and was named the game’s most valuable player.
”It doesn’t make a difference who gets what,” said Branch. “Our plan was to come in here and win the game. We had a lot of doubters and we showed them that we are a big team and we came out and won tonight.”
The Patriots boosted their lead to 24-14 in the fourth quarter courtesy of Adam Vinatieri’s 22-yard field goal, which capped an eight-play, 43-yard drive.
McNabb, who has a history of overthrowing receivers at crucial times, got the ball with 5:40 remaining and tried to rally the Eagles.
The Patriots played another stout defensive game, showing McNabb looks -- including lining up two linemen and five linebackers -- he may have never seen on film. They had to adapt after losing free safety Eugene Wilson for more than half the game with what was thought to be a broken arm.
The Eagles pulled within 24-21 with 1:48 remaining when McNabb found Greg Lewis for a 30-yard touchdown pass over rookie safety Dexter Reid -- Wilson’s replacement. That capped a 13-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 3 minutes 52 seconds.
The Eagles attempted an onside kick, but it was recovered by Christian Fauria at the Eagles’ 41. While the Eagles forced a Patriots punt, McNabb couldn’t pull off the heroics, with Harrison icing the game with his second interception.
While the Eagles received a strong performance from Terrell Owens (nine catches, 122 yards), the flamboyant receiver never found the end zone.
”Obviously we had a lot of turnovers,” said Owens. “My hat goes off to the New England Patriots. They’re a good team. It was a hard-fought ballgame. We just gave it away.”
”I think we had everyone on the edge of their seats when we went back out there with 50 seconds left. We possibly could have won that game,” McNabb said.
But it wasn’t to be.
You could sense the Patriots were taking over late in the second quarter, and by the time Paul McCartney had finished “Hey Jude” at halftime, Belichick’s troops were ready to take the field and carry on the momentum.
Offensive coordinator Weis said the 25-minute halftime allowed him time to figure out how to beat the Philadelphia blitz. He did it with short passes and screen passes.
The Eagles were still intent on blitzing, and the Patriots were happy to see it.
”They were blitzing up the middle with [Jeremiah Trotter] in an attempt to make Brady get out of the pocket and so we had to do something to combat it. We used the screens and the shorter passing game and it really opened things up for us,” Weis said.
Brady was picking it up very nicely, spotting Branch for gains of 27 and 21, the latter giving the Patriots a first down at the Philadelphia 2-yard line. From there, Brady went to designated short-yardage tight end Mike Vrabel, who gathered a tipped pass for his second touchdown reception in as many Super Bowls, giving the champs a 14-7 lead with 11:09 left in the third.
A fired-up Brady returned to the sideline and screamed to his teammates, “Let’s keep it going! Let’s keep it going!”
Yet the Eagles answered quickly, evening things at 14 with 3:35 remaining in the third. It was turning into a heavyweight title fight, and McNabb appeared poised for the challenge.
The Eagles targeted rookie corner Randall Gay, throwing at him often during the drive. McNabb completed passes of 15, 4, and 10 to Brian Westbrook, the last catch good for 6 points. He also found Lewis and Owens twice each on the drive. His favorite first-half target, Todd Pinkston, was cramping up and was in the locker room receiving intravenous fluids.
The chains kept moving and even with a blitzing Willie McGinest coming at him, McNabb managed to drill a pass to Westbrook between two Patriots for the tying score.
With the score even after three quarters (a Super Bowl first), the Patriots started a well-orchestrated drive to regain the lead. Brady was very methodical in leading the Patriots 66 yards, using Kevin Faulk as a key component.
Faulk caught passes of 13 and 14 yards (both beating Eagle blitzes) and ran twice for 20 yards in picking up three first downs on the drive. Corey Dillon capped it with a 2-yard touchdown run off left tackle with 13:44 remaining, giving the Patriots a 21-14 lead.
”We were 0 for 4 on first downs in the first quarter and we really couldn’t get into any rhythm offensively,” said Brady. “We just didn’t move the ball. We tried to run it and didn’t gain a whole lot of yards. We made a few more plays in the second half.”
At one point in the first quarter, the Eagles led the battle of first downs, 9-1. The Patriots committed costly penalties early and Pinkston made two beautiful catches on the first scoring drive, which culminated in McNabb hitting L.J. Smith in the end zone with 9:55 remaining in the first quarter.
On their next possession, the Patriots tried to answer but Brady fumbled when his hand hit Faulk’s hip at the Eagles’ 5-yard line (New England’s first turnover of the postseason).
New England finally scored when Brady hit David Givens for 4-yard score to make it 7-7 with 1:10 left before intermission.
That was not respectable for the three-time Super Bowl champions.
In the end, they adjusted, they executed, and they conquered.