Tom Brady set up Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to give the New England Patriots their second NFL championship in three seasons with a 32-29 victory against the Carolina Panthers. Not only did Vinatieri win this one, he did the same thing two years ago, beating the St. Louis Rams on the final play of the game. "Nobody makes all of them. But if you've got to have one kick with everything on the line, he's the one you want kicking it," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "It was an awesome kick. It was a great kick. That's the game. That's what Adam's here for."
Most of the first half did live up to the predictions that two defensive teams would make for a dull game. They were scoreless for nearly 27 minutes, the slowest start in Super Bowl history, and Vinatieri missed one field goal and another was blocked. But that changed in the final three minutes of the first half and again in the fourth quarter, when the teams combined for 37 points, the most in any quarter in any Super Bowl.
The scoring never stopped. The Patriots were ahead. The Panthers were ahead. The Patriots were ahead, then the Panthers tied it. And then came the most reliable foot in football. "You know you might have a chance at the end of the game to win it," Vinatieri said. "I looked up and it was going right down the middle."
It wouldn't have been possible without Brady. He completed 32 of 48 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns. The 32 completions were a Super Bowl record. "To win this the way we did is incredible, unbelievable. A great all-around game," he said. "I don't know how I do it." Brady was voted the game's MVP for the second time in three seasons, although he did suffer a second-half interception that prevented New England from winning more easily.
Before the game, played in the city that is home to the nation's space program, there was a tribute to NASA and the crew of the shuttle Columbia, which broke up over Texas exactly one year ago. And before the second-half kickoff, Justin Timberlake tore off part of Janet Jackson's top, exposing her breast during the halftime show, and New England linebacker Matt Chatham tackled a streaker on the field. It made fans wonder what was in store for the second half. The teams didn't disappoint.
Carolina tied the game at 29 with its third fourth-quarter TD on a 12-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left. Then John Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds, which gave New England field position at its own 40. Brady moved the Patriots 37 yards in six plays, hitting Deion Branch to set up Vinatieri's winning kick, which prevented the Super Bowl from going into overtime for the first time. It also gave New England its 15th consecutive victory. "I felt like they fought so hard all the way that my role was to help them hoist the trophy," Vinatieri said.
The Patriots led 14-10 at the half, and after a scoreless third quarter, they made it 21-10 on the second play of the fourth on a 2-yard run by Antowain Smith. That capped an eight-play, 71-yard drive featuring a 33-yard pass from Brady to tight end Daniel Graham.
Carolina wasn't about to give up, though. It scored on DeShaun Foster's 33-yard run on a six-play, 81-yard drive. But the 2-point conversion pass was behind Muhsin Muhammad, and the score remained 21-16. The decision to go for two would come back to haunt coach John Fox. The Patriots seemed ready to put the game away when they got the ball back, but Brady made a rare mistake -- throwing an off-balance pass that Reggie Howard intercepted in the end zone. Two plays later, Delhomme found Muhammad behind the New England defense for an 85-yard score -- the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history -- to give the Panthers a 22-21 lead with 6:53 left. Fox again went for the two-point conversion and failed.
It was the first time New England trailed since Nov. 23. The last time was also in Houston, when the Patriots rallied from a 20-13 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Texans 23-20 in overtime on -- what else? -- a field goal by Vinatieri. The Panthers' lead didn't last long, either.
Brady came back with a TD pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel with 2:51 remaining, and Kevin Faulk ran in for the two-point conversion to give New England a 29-22 lead. About two minutes later, Delhomme and Proehl hooked up to tie the score, giving Vinatieri another chance to be a hero.
"I thought he kept us in the game," Fox said, referring to Delhomme, who rebounded from a 1 of 9 start to pass for 323 yards. "They kept battling back. Unfortunately they had the ball last."
After the game-opening scoring drought, the Patriots and Panthers finally got going -- 24 points in the final 3:05 of the first half. The Patriots dominated that dormant period and finally took a 7-0 lead on the first of Brady's two 5-yard TD passes. The quarterback found Branch after Vrabel sacked Delhomme and forced a fumble that gave New England the ball at the Carolina 20-yard line. At that point, New England had outgained Carolina 125 yards to minus-7, and Delhomme had been sacked three times.
But the Patriots' touchdown seemed to wake up the Panthers. Delhomme led Carolina on a 95-yard drive -- tied for second longest in Super Bowl history -- capping it with a 39-yard TD pass to Steve Smith, who beat Tyrone Poole in single coverage. That tied the game at 7 with 1:14 left in the half. Brady came right back, hitting Branch for 52 yards behind Ricky Manning Jr. to set up his second 5-yard TD pass, this time to David Givens.
Carolina wasn't finished, either. Vinatieri squibbed the kickoff and Kris Mangum returned it 12 yards to his own 47. With 12 seconds and a timeout left, the Panthers crossed up the Patriots by handing the ball to Stephen Davis, who rushed 21 yards to the New England 32. After a timeout, Kasay kicked a 50-yard field goal to close the half.
In the beginning, New England looked as if it might get off to a quick start. The Patriots shut down the Panthers on their first possession, then moved to the Carolina 13 after Troy Brown's 28-yard punt return. But Vinatieri's 31-yard field-goal attempt was wide right. It was only the third time he had missed indoors in 34 attempts, all of them in Houston. The Patriots continued to keep the Panthers backed up.
Carolina got its initial first down with a little over 2 minutes left in the first quarter on a holding penalty on New England's Ty Law, but had to punt three plays later. Carolina's defense held up its end -- Will Witherspoon ended another Patriots threat by dumping Brown for a 10-yard loss on a reverse to take New England out of field-goal range.
With a little under 9 minutes left in the second quarter, the Patriots reached the Carolina 38. Brady's third-down sneak was barely stopped, then Antowain Smith barely got the 6 inches on fourth down, a spot that was upheld on replay. The Patriots reached the 18, but Shane Burton blocked Vinatieri's 36-yard attempt. Three plays later, Vrabel stripped Delhomme and Richard Seymour recovered. On third-and-7, Brady -- the self-described "slowest quarterback in the league" -- scrambled up the middle to the 5. On the next play, he found Branch in the end zone for the game's first score.
But all of that was forgotten by the final quarter as New England established its credentials as a mini-dynasty. "I don't know about our legacy," said Charlie Weis, the team's offensive coordinator. "But two titles in three years in the environment of the NFL these days is quite an achievement."
For which the Patriots can thank Vinatieri.
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