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This Act Is Down Pat

Times Staff Writer

Everything felt so achingly familiar. Tom Brady directed the drive. Adam Vinatieri nailed the kick. The New England Patriots raised their arms into a confetti shower, hardly noticing the Super Bowl’s losing team, this time the Carolina Panthers, trudging off the Reliant Field grass.

Only two years earlier in New Orleans, the Patriots did the same thing to the St. Louis Rams.

The most surprising part of Sunday’s game was what happened at halftime -- Justin Timberlake pulling off Janet Jackson’s top -- not the way the Patriots won. That was a remarkable replay.

“It was deja vu,” said Carolina receiver Ricky Proehl, who played for the Rams then. “I was living a nightmare all over again.”

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That nightmare starred the same boogeyman, Brady, named the Super Bowl’s most valuable player for a second time after throwing for 354 yards and three touchdowns before setting up Vinatieri’s winning field goal with four seconds to play in the 32-29 victory.

“I respect the Carolina Panthers, and I’m sure they were in their huddle talking about stopping Tom and coming up with a big defensive stop,” New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “But on our sideline, you look at No. 12 out there doing the things he’s doing and you almost know. You almost know he’s going to get the job done.”

Brady now has two Super Bowl rings, half as many as his boyhood idol, Joe Montana. Asked if he feels he’s inching closer to that Hall of Fame quarterback, Brady shook his head.

“He’s a benchmark for a quarterback in this league,” Brady said. “And the way he played under pressure, and the way he thrived in tight situations, he was an incredible player. There’s no way I’m even close to that.

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“This was my fourth year.... Hopefully one day I’m on that level, but no way now.”

Regardless, at 26, Brady is the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls. He set a Super Bowl completion record with 32 in 48 attempts. He had some help from his offensive line, which went the entire playoffs without giving up a sack.

“It was incredible,” Brady said. “The most heat I think I’ve had all year, [but] we fended them off.”

Meanwhile, John Kasay fouled them off. The Carolina kicker gave the Patriots prime field position on their final drive by booting the kickoff out of bounds after the Panthers’ tying touchdown, a 12-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Proehl with 1:08 to play. Brady moved his team to the Carolina 40, where, on third and three with 14 seconds to play, he connected with Deion Branch for 17 yards.

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That set up a 41-yard field goal by Vinatieri, who won the 2002 Super Bowl with a 48-yard field goal on the final play. Sunday, Vinatieri came through in the clutch despite missing his first two field-goal attempts, one of which was blocked.

It was the 15th consecutive victory for the Patriots, the league’s second-longest winning streak behind the 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972, and one that should earn them mention in the discussion of the best teams in NFL history.

“I’ve got to let you guys write that; I won’t say it,” Bruschi said. “I’ll just say, ‘Fifteen in a row.’ What we’ve done speaks for itself. I think people can just look at what we’ve done and say, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty darn good football team.’ ”

The Panthers put up a noble fight, becoming the first team in eight games to actually build a lead against New England. Delhomme, who began the season as a backup quarterback and once was a backup to Kurt Warner on an NFL Europe team, proved he was no fluke. He passed for 323 yards with touchdowns of 39, 85 and 12 yards.

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Delhomme was the comeback kid this season. Eight times he led game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or later. But he ran out of time against the Patriots -- the Panthers had time only for a kickoff return after Vinatieri’s decisive field goal.

Carolina safety Mike Minter, who lived through the agony of a 1-15 season two years ago, now knows the pain of coming so close to winning the Lombardi Trophy but falling just short.

“You’re right there,” he said. “Our offense caught fire, and we felt like all we had to do was stop them. They couldn’t stop our offense. To get this close and lose at the end of the game, now you feel what everybody else has been feeling all year long with what we’ve been doing to them.”

With two minutes to play in the first half, everything seemed to be falling apart for Carolina. The Panthers trailed, 7-0, and had amassed minus-two yards of offense. They were pinned back on their five, and two of their special-teamers -- linebacker Brian Allen and receiver Karl Hankton -- had to be separated because they wanted to fight each other. Hankton got in Allen’s face after Allen made a boneheaded late hit after a kickoff return, drawing a personal foul.

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Then, Delhomme came alive. After completing only one pass in the first quarter, he finally began to connect with his receivers and forged a 7-7 tie with a beautiful 39-yard throw on third and 10 to Steve Smith, who beat Tyrone Poole to the corner of the end zone and didn’t break stride as he made an over-the-shoulder catch. The drive covered 95 yards, the second-longest in Super Bowl history behind Chicago’s 96-yard drive against New England 18 years ago.

As Smith glided across the goal line, Delhomme almost came out of his cleats with excitement. He pumped his fists, screamed so loud his neck veins bulged, and looked as giddy as Jim Valvano as he almost floated toward the Carolina sideline.

It didn’t take long for the Patriots to answer. Brady rolled left and found Branch down the middle for a 52-yard gain. That got New England deep into Carolina territory and, three plays later, Brady fooled the Panthers with a play-action fake and fired a five-yard touchdown pass to David Givens with 49 seconds to play.

The scoring spree wasn’t over, though. The Patriots opted to squib the ensuing kickoff, and that turned out to be the wrong decision. Carolina recovered the kick on its 47, and moved into field-goal position with a 21-yard run up the middle by Stephen Davis. Kasay ended the half with a 50-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10.

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The halftime show, sure to be the topic of water-cooler conversations today, featured a duet with Timberlake and Jackson that ended with Timberlake pulling off part of her top before a worldwide audience. It is unclear whether the act was an accident or a planned part of the show.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stolen Thunder

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Ricky Proehl has made two clutch plays at the end of Super Bowls, only to have his team lose on Adam Vinatieri field goals.

Super Bowl: XXXVI - Feb. 3, 2002; New England 20, St. Louis 17

Proehl’s play: Catches a 26-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 left as Rams tie the score at 17-17.

Vinatieri’s kick: A game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expires.

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Super Bowl: XXXVIII - Feb. 1, 2004; New England 32, Carolina 29

Proehl’s play: Makes a 12-yard touchdown reception with 1:08 left as Panthers tie score at 29-29.

Vinatieri’s kick: Wins the Super Bowl for the Patriots for the second time in three years with a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left.

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Statistics

PATRIOTS 32, PANTHERS 29

*--* Carolina...0 10 0 19 -- 29 New England...0 14 0 18 -- 32

*--*

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Second Quarter

NE -- Branch 5 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 3:05. Drive: 4 plays, 20 yards, 2:10. Key play: Seymour recovery of Delhomme fumble at Panther 20

Car -- S. Smith 39 pass from Delhomme (Kasay kick), 1:07. Drive: 8 plays, 95 yards, 1:58. Key play: Delhomme 13 pass to Proehl on third and five

NE -- Givens 5 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), :18. Drive: 6 plays, 78 yards, :49. Key play: Brady 12 pass to Givens

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Car -- FG Kasay 50, :00. Drive: 2 plays, 21 yards, :18. Key play: Davis 21 run to Patriot 32.

Fourth Quarter

NE -- A. Smith 2 run (Vinatieri kick), 14:49. Drive: 8 plays, 71 yards, 4:08. Key play: Brady 16 pass to Branch

Car -- Foster 33 run (pass failed), 12:39. Drive: 6 plays, 81 yards, 2:10. Key play: Delhomme 13 pass to Muhammad

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Car -- Muhammad 85 pass from Delhomme (pass failed), 6:53. Drive: 3 plays, 90 yards, :45. Key play: Howard 12 interception return to Panthers 10.

NE -- Brady 1 pass to Vrabel (Faulk run), 2:51. Drive: 11 plays, 68 yards, 4:02. Key play: Brady 6 pass to T.Brown on third and five

Car -- Proehl 12 pass from Delhomme (Kasay kick), 1:08. Drive: 7 plays, 80 yards, 1:43. Key play: Delhomme 19 pass to Muhammad

NE -- FG Vinatieri 41, :04. Drive: 6 plays, 37 yards, 1:04. Key play: Brady 13 pass to T.Brown

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Attendance -- 71,525.

*--* TEAM Car NE FIRST DOWNS...17 29 Rushing...3 7 Passing...12 19 Penalty...2 3 THIRD DOWN EFF...4-12 8-17 FOURTH DOWN EFF...0-0 1-1 TOTAL NET YARDS...387 481 Total Plays...53 83 Avg Gain...7.3 5.8 NET YARDS RUSHING...92 127 Rushes...16 35 Avg per rush...5.8 3.6 NET YARDS PASSING...295 354 Sacked-Yds lost...4-28 0-0 Gross-Yds passing...323 354 Completed-Att....16-33 32-48 Had Intercepted...0 1 Yards-Pass Play...8.0 7.4 KICKOFFS-EndZone-TB...5-0-0 6-3-0 PUNTS-Avg....7-44.3 5-34.6 Punts blocked...0 0 FGs-PATs blocked...0-0 1-0 TOTAL RETURN YARDAGE...130 120 Punts Returns...1-2 5-42 Kickoffs Returns...6-116 4-78 Interceptions...1-12 0-0 PENALTIES-Yds...12-73 8-60 FUMBLES-Lost...1-1 1-0 TIME OF POSSESSION...21:02 38:58

*--*

INDIVIDUAL

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RUSHING -- Carolina: Davis 13-49, Foster 3-43. New England: A. Smith 26-83, Faulk 6-42, Brady 2-12, T. Brown 1-(minus 10).

PASSING -- Carolina: Delhomme 16-33-0-323. New England: Brady 32-48-1-354.

RECEIVING -- Carolina: Muhammad 4-140, S.Smith 4-80, Proehl 4-71, Wiggins 2-1, Foster 1-9, Mangum 1-2. New England: Branch 10-143, T. Brown 8-76, Givens 5-69, Graham 4-46, Faulk 4-19, Vrabel 1-1.

PUNT RETURNS -- Carolina: S. Smith 1-2. New England: T. Brown 4-40, Branch 1-2.

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KICKOFF RETURNS -- Carolina: Smart 4-74, S. Smith 1-30, Magnum 1-12. New England: B. Johnson 4-78.

TACKLES-ASSISTS-SACKS -- Carolina: Morgan 11-7-0, Minter 9-5-0, Witherspoon 7-6-0, Cousin 3-4-0, Howard 6-0-0, Manning 4-2-0, Wallace 3-3-0, Burton 3-2-0, Grant 3-2-0, Favors 3-0-0, Jenkins 3-0-0, Buckner 1-2-0, Cooper 1-2-0, Peppers 2-0-0, Rucker 1-1-0, Allen 1-0-0, C.Branch 1-0-0, Hankton 1-0-0, Hoover 1-0-0, Rasmussen 1-0-0, Sauerbrun 1-0-0, Smart 1-0-0, Steussie 1-0-0, Ciurciu 0-1-0, Wesley 0-1-0, Willig 0-1-0. New England: Harrison 8-1-1, Vrabel 4-2-2, Law 5-0-0, Phifer 4-1-0, Hamilton 3-1-0, Bruschi 2-2-0, McGinest 1-3-1, Poole 1-2-0, Chatham 2-0-0, Seymour 2-0-0, Akins 1-0-0, Cherry 1-0-0, Izzo 1-0-0, Koppen 1-0-0, B.Johnson 1-0-0, Mayer 1-0-0, Vinatieri 1-0-0.

INTERCEPTION -- Carolina: Howard 1-12.

FIELD-GOAL ATTEMPTS MISSED -- New England: Vinatieri 31 (wide right), 36 (blocked).

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OFFICIALS -- Referee Ed Hochuli, umpire Jeff Rice, head linesman Mark Hittner, line judge Ben Montgomery, back judge Scott Green, side judge Laird Hayes, field judge Tom Sifferman, replay Larry Hill.

Time -- 4:05.


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