February 1, 2012

2004: Patriots Edge Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII

Super Bowl XXXVIII on February 1, 2004 matched the New England Patriots, champions of the AFC after compiling a league-best 14-2 record, against the Carolina Panthers, representatives of the NFC following an 11-5 regular season in 2003. The teams had been in radically different places just two years earlier – while the Patriots were coming out of nowhere to win their first title, the Panthers had gone a dreadful 1-15.

New England had risen to prominence under Head Coach Bill Belichick and had uncovered a major talent in QB Tom Brady (pictured above). Unheralded coming out of Michigan in 2000, Brady replaced veteran Drew Bledsoe during the ’01 season that ended in a championship and was continuing to develop into an elite quarterback. The nondescript but effective receiving corps was led by wide receivers Troy Brown and Deion Branch. Running backs Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk both ran for over 600 yards (642 and 638, respectively) while Faulk added 48 pass receptions for another 440 yards. The tough defense contained All-Pros in DT Richard Seymour, CB Ty Law, and SS Rodney Harrison, plus Pro Bowl DE/LB Willie McGinest and a solid group of linebackers that included Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi. New England won a close Divisional playoff game against Tennessee and then defeated the Colts, with Brady’s quarterback archrival Peyton Manning, for the AFC title.

Carolina was coached by the defensive-minded John Fox, and defense was the source of the team’s rise. The front four was especially effective with ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers and tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. The conservative offense was guided by QB Jake Delhomme (pictured at left) and benefited from the presence of ex-Redskins RB Stephen Davis (1444 yards) and rookie backup DeShaun Foster. Eighth-year veteran WR Muhsin Muhammad (54 catches, 837 yards) was paired with rising star Steve Smith (88 catches, 1110 yards). The Panthers won the NFC South to make the playoffs for the second time in their nine-year history, beat Dallas in the Wild Card round, just got past the Rams in overtime in their Divisional game, and earned a trip to the Super Bowl with a 14-3 win over the Eagles in the NFC Championship game at Philadelphia.

There was a crowd of 71,525 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium that witnessed a slow-developing contest. The Panthers didn’t manage so much as a first down until their fourth possession, late in the first quarter. New England, starting its first series on the Carolina 46, got pass completions by Brady to Branch for 16 yards and Troy Brown for 12, but after getting to the 13 yard line, the normally-dependable Adam Vinatieri missed a 31-yard field goal attempt. For the rest of the opening period, the Patriots couldn’t move the ball effectively either despite winning the battle for field position. Carolina’s defense played its part, especially in one key instance when LB Will Witherspoon dropped Brown for a loss of ten yards on a third-down end-around play that took the Patriots out of field goal range.

New England finally put together a long 13-play, 57-yard drive in the second quarter, methodically moving down the field, but again came up empty when Vinatieri’s 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked by DE Shane Burton. The Patriots got a break four plays later when Delhomme fumbled while being sacked by Vrabel and Seymour recovered at the Carolina 20. Brady capped the four-play series with a five-yard touchdown pass to Branch to end the longest opening scoring drought in Super Bowl history.

With just over three minutes remaining in the first half, the Panthers offense gained possession at their 10 yard line, and having been dominated in total yardage by a margin of 125 to -7, it seemed like another fruitless series until Delhomme completed a third-and-five pass to WR Ricky Proehl for 13 yards. Following the two-minute warning, Delhomme completed two more throws, to Muhammad for 23 yards and back to Proehl for 15 to penetrate into New England territory. Three plays later, and facing a third-and-ten situation, Delhomme threw to Steve Smith for a 39-yard touchdown and, with John Kasay’s extra point, the score was tied at 7-7.

The Patriots came right back on a 78-yard drive over six plays that featured a Brady pass to Branch for a 52-yard gain to the Carolina 14. Brady capped the series with a five-yard scoring toss to WR David Givens to again put New England up by a touchdown. On the last play of the half, after the squibbed kickoff was returned 12 yards by TE Kris Mangum and Stephen Davis ran for 21 yards, Kasay booted a 50-yard field goal and it was 14-10 going into the intermission.

Following a halftime that included a notorious wardrobe malfunction and concluded with New England LB Matt Chatham tackling a streaker on the field, the teams resumed play in much the same way that they started the game – trading punts after short possessions. Again it was the Patriots taking the initiative as they got the ball at their own 44 following a Carolina punt with 4:37 to go in the period. On an eight-play drive that was highlighted by Brady completions of 16 yards to Branch and 33 to TE Daniel Graham, Antowain Smith ran for a two-yard TD early in the fourth quarter and the Patriots extended their margin to 21-10.

The Panthers again came alive on offense with Delhomme throwing passes to Muhammad for 13 yards and Steve Smith for 18 and 22 and DeShaun Foster running for a 33-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the margin at five points, and it seemed as though the Patriots would add to their lead when they went 64 yards in 10 plays that included three Brady pass completions and a 23-yard run by Kevin Faulk to the Carolina 10. But facing a third-and-goal situation, Brady threw off-balance and was intercepted by CB Reggie Howard, and three plays later Delhomme connected with Muhammad for an 85-yard touchdown. In stunning fashion, the Panthers were in front by a score of 22-21, although another try for a two-point conversion was unsuccessful.

There were now just under seven minutes to play, and New England again drove down the field. Brady completed six passes in the 11-play series, the last to Vrabel, inserted on offense as a tight end, for a one-yard touchdown. Faulk successfully ran for two points and the Patriots were back in front at 29-22.

Steve Smith’s 37-yard kickoff return was negated by a penalty, and the Panthers had to start the next possession at their 19. Delhomme, who had started the game so poorly, was now unstoppable as he succeeded on five of his six passes, including 19 yards to Muhammad and 31 yards to Proehl. The last was for 12 yards and a touchdown to Proehl and, with Kasay’s successful extra point, the game was tied at 29-29.

New England started the next series at its 40, thanks to Kasay booting the kickoff out of bounds, with the clock down to 1:08. After an incomplete pass, Brady connected with Brown for 13 yards and, following a timeout and a 10-yard penalty, hit Brown again for 13 yards to the Carolina 44. A four-yard completion to Graham got the ball to the 40 and then Brady found Branch for 17 yards to the 23. From there, Vinatieri (pictured below) re-burnished his credentials as a clutch kicker by booting a 41-yard field goal, and the Patriots were champions for the second time in three years by a score of 32-29.

The combined 37 points in the fourth quarter were the most in any quarter of Super Bowl play to date. New England outgained the Panthers by 481 yards to 387 and also accumulated more first downs, 29 to 17. Each team turned the ball over once. Delhomme was sacked four times, twice by Vrabel, while the Panthers failed to record any sacks.

Tom Brady, the game’s MVP, completed 32 of 48 passes for 354 yards with three touchdowns and the one interception. Deion Branch caught 10 of those throws for 143 yards and a TD and Troy Brown contributed 8 for 76 yards. Antowain Smith led the ground game with 26 carries for 83 yards and a score.

For the Panthers, Jake Delhomme missed on eight of his first nine pass attempts but rallied from there, completing 16 of 33 throws for 323 yards and three TDs with none intercepted. Muhsin Muhammad (pictured at right) caught 4 passes for 140 yards and the long touchdown, Steve Smith gained 80 yards and scored a TD on his 4 receptions, and Ricky Proehl also caught 4, for 71 yards with a score. Stephen Davis rushed for 49 yards on 13 attempts and DeShaun Foster added 43 yards on just three carries thanks to his scoring run.

“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,” Bill Belichick said of Adam Vinatieri, who was successful on just one of three field goal attempts, but connected when the game was on the line – just as he had against the Rams two years before. “It was an awesome kick. It was a great kick. That's the game. That's what Adam's here for.”

The Patriots went on to make it three championships in four years in 2004, again going 14-2 and defeating the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Carolina slumped to 7-9 in ’04 but returned to the playoffs in 2005 and made it to the NFC Championship game before succumbing to the Seahawks.