The Thrill and the AgonyThis week in sports by Chas Walker

It took the New England Patriots 37 years to win their first Super Bowl, but only two years to win their second. New England defeated the Carolina Panthers 32-29 last Sunday to become the NFL Champions of 2003. With less than three minutes to play, the Panthers trailed by a touchdown; but they never quit fighting, and quarterback Jake Delhomme tied the score with a 12-yard pass to Ricky Proehl with just over a minute remaining.

The game seemed destined to be the first Super Bowl contest decided in overtime – that is, until John Kasay’s ensuing kick-off sailed out-of-bounds, giving New England the ball on its own 40- yard line. With the help of two timeouts, New England quarterback Tom Brady led a quick six-play, 37-yard drive to set up a tie-breaking 41-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with four seconds on the play clock.

The T-shirts and hats rolled off the presses – New England had won again, its second title in three years, its 15th straight win. Vinatieri’s kick harkened back to New England’s 20-17 Super Bowl victory two seasons ago, when he booted a 48-yarder as time expired to extinguish the hopes of the St. Louis Rams. But Vinatieri wasn’t the only one who offered a repeat performance on Sunday: Ricky Proehl made the fourth quarter game-tying catch for the Rams on a 26-yard pass from Kurt Warner.

And while the game ended dramatically in a flurry of offense, its beginnings were much more about the swarming defenses of both teams: nearly 27 minutes ticked off the clock before anyone scored. Though he was cool under fourth quarter pressure, Vinatieri got off on the wrong foot, missing a 31-yard field goal wide right and seeing his 36-yard attempt blocked by Shane Burton.

The teams exchanged punts until the rapid deluge of points began – 24 points in the final 3:05 of the half. The Pats started out with the first of Brady’s three touchdown passes, a play action fake and a five-yard toss to Deion Branch while the defense looked the other way.

Delhomme returned the favor, mounting a 95-yard drive on eight plays in less than two minutes. The drive ended on a sweet rainbow pass that hit Steve Smith in stride for a 39-yard touchdown. Brady collected himself, and, with help from a 52-yard reception by Deion Branch, took the Patriots in for another score before the half – a five-yard pass to David Givens with only 18 seconds left to play, mirroring the previous touchdown.

That would send them into the locker room with momentum, right? Wrong. Adam Vinatieri’s squib kick was recovered and returned to the Carolina 47. A surprise run by Stephen Davis notched 21 yards, and John Kasay kicked it through the uprights as the half ended.

The third quarter brought more punts, and nothing was scored until New England put the ball in Antowain Smith’s hands near the start of the fourth quarter for a touchdown run. Carolina started chasing the points. A 33-yard touchdown run by DeShaun Foster brought them closer, but a missed two-point conversion kept them further away.

Then, after a strong return drive, Brady finished weak, lobbing up an interception at the Carolina nine-yard line. Two plays later, Delhomme threw an 85-yard touchdown for Mushin Muhammad. Though Carolina missed the ensuing two-point conversion, they now led the game 22-21. A series of short passes and runs brought New England into the red zone again, and this time Brady did not falter.

His third touchdown pass was to Mike Vrabel, a linebacker who was called in for duty on the offensive side as well. Vrabel had already forced Delhomme to fumble and sacked him twice; now he put six points on the board. On an imaginative two-point conversion, Tom Brady lined up in shotgun formation and pretended the snap had gone over his head, while Kevin Faulk grabbed it directly from the center and ran it up the middle, putting the Patriots up 29-22.

This put the game back on Delhomme’s shoulders, with 2:43 remaining on the clock. Hearts from north to south stopped beating, as he delivered big – running three plays that brought them into New England territory before the two-minute warning. A 31-yard pass to Proehl brought them to the New England 14, where a short pass then set up the game-tying touchdown to Proehl.

What would have happened if Kasay had not kicked the ball out of bounds on the following kick-off, giving the Patriots great field position to set-up Vinatieri’s game-winner? We will never know, of course. For the game is over, and the season, too.

And for now, New England can savor the hard-won victory.

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