So close for Delhomme and Panthers

HOUSTON -- Just as he was about to walk off the field at Reliant Stadium, Jake Delhomme stopped and forced himself to watch the Patriots celebrate after their 32-29 victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

"When I'm in the middle of two-a-days in training camp and I feel like whining about how hot it is, I want to keep on remembering what it looked like," the Panthers' quarterback said a little later. "I want to remember what it looks like."

Heading into this ultimate game, Delhomme flew well under the radar of the national media. Most of the attention went to the two savage defenses and New England quarterback Tom Brady. Delhomme, who completed all of 43 passes in three previous playoff games -- and only nine of 14 in the NFC Championship against Philadelphia -- was not thought to be much of a factor.

But as Carolina head coach John Fox observed after the game, "Jake's a unique guy. He gave us an opportunity to win it."

Indeed he did. For while the vaunted defense allowed the Patriots to score 32 points, it was Delhomme who rallied the Panthers three different times when the gap had widened.

"Twenty-nine points?'" he asked. "Yeah, before the game I would have taken it. But in the end, we needed to score more."

Don't blame Delhomme.

"In some respects, he actually outplayed Brady, who was voted the game's MVP award. Delhomme completed 16 of 33 passes for 323 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. And what he did in the second, after a horrific beginning, approached amazing.

With the Patriots' defense overwhelming the Panthers' offensive line, Delhomme was hurried and harried in the early going. He completed only one of his first nine passes for -- get this -- one yard. He was sacked three times and, frankly, couldn't have been much worse.

"It's a matter of being patient," Delhomme said. "It was only zero-zero in the first quarter. They have a good defense. They're going to win sometimes."

Delhomme was blind-sided by linebacker Mike Vrabel and stripped of the ball, and the Patriots went on to take a 7-0 lead with 3:05 left in the half.

That was when Delhomme found the sense of urgency that had been lacking. He took the Panthers all the way from their own 5-yard line to the end zone. There was a 13-yard pass to Ricky Proehl, then a 23-yarder.

Delhomme hit Muhsin Muhammad with a 23-yarder, then Proehl again for 15. His 39-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith was a thing of beauty. Smith beat cornerback Tyrone Pool down the sideline and Delhomme hung out a laser that hit Smith perfectly in stride. Make that 7-all.

When the Patriots ran out to a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Delhomme got busy again, overseeing a 6-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that was finished by a 33-yard touchdown run by DeShaun Foster. Make that 21-16.

Delhomme gave the Panthers their first (and only) lead on his next series. He floated an 85-yard touchdown pass to Smith, who somehow managed to elude safety Eugene Wilson

"It was a 131-X-On," Delhomme explained. "I didn't like him the first time, but when I went back to him the safety was kind of lost in coverage. I just threw it up there and he made a great run and catch."

When the Patriots came back to take a 29-22 lead, Delhomme delivered -- again. This time it was a 7-play, 80-yard drive that Proehl capped with a 12-yard touchdown reception with 68 seconds left on the clock.

Delhomme said he was ready to go in and win the game in overtime, but the opportunity never came. Brady teed up placekicker Adam Vinatieri with a modest drive and Vinatieri -- who had missed two previous kicks -- drilled a 41-yard field goal right down the middle.

Delhomme never got on the field because the clock ran out as Rod Smart tried to return the ensuing kickoff.

After his rough start, Delhomme completed 15-for-24, 322 yards and 3 touchdowns -- MVP numbers if the defense simply does its job.

He was summoned from the Panthers locker room to meet with the media about 15 minutes after the game. He walked with his hands on his hips, head down. The soundtrack to his long walk under the stands at Reliant Stadium had to be painful to hear -- Brady's postgame interview was being piped in on the sound system.

He sat down in a directors chair and took a slug of water.

Delhomme was asked about the Panthers' marvelous season, which included 14 victories in 20 games.

"No," he said, softly. "It's hard to say it's a great season right now. It's the worst feeling in the world. It's disappointing we didn't get a chance to go back out and get it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com