Super Bowl XXXVIII met and surpassed expectations. What a great game!
Both the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots showed up at Reliant Stadium with stellar defenses in tow and looking very similar to the teams they've been all season. The biggest difference was that this time, Carolina's late comeback fell short and the team that was 7-0 in games decided by three points or less lost by three points.
John Kasay's kick that went out of bounds and gave the Patriots prime field position on the 40-yard line was just heartbreaking. Had that kick gone downfield, and given the Panthers an extra 10-15 yards to work with, the outcome of this game could have been drastically altered.
It goes to show that if you leave an opponent in the game long enough, they will likely come back and bite you in the rear end. That's exactly what almost happened to the Patriots, who had opportunities to go up by 17 points in the first half, but were unable to capitalize. And in what seemed like deja vu, they turned to their quarterback and kicker to keep the game from overtime.
Both quarterbacks performed admirably. Early in the game, Jake Delhomme appeared to be nervous. He had that dazed look in his eyes, which I know all too well. But once things settled down, he made some great throws. Both deep balls for touchdowns were terrific -- particularly the fourth-quarter, 85-yard touchdown to Muhsin Muhammad.
But ultimately, the Patriots put the game on the shoulders of Tom Brady, who completed 32-of-48 passes for 354 yards. Those numbers really speak to the confidence the Patriots' coaching staff has in Brady and their wide receivers.
Best Coaching Move
After their second touchdown of the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called for a two-point conversion, which put the Pats up 29-22. That was an excellent move.
It's difficult to pinpoint one star on the Patriots' squad. In a game like this, where just about everyone plays a key role, there are just so many places to go in terms of looking for an unsung hero. Of course, Brady was named MVP but Troy Brown made some sensational catches -- most notably the two 13-yard catches on the game-winning drive; Deion Branch had 10 catches for 143 yards; linebacker Mike Vrabel recorded two sacks, forced a fumble and scored a touchdown; and Adam Vinatieri kicked the clutch, 41-yard, game-winning field goal.
On the other side of the ball, Delhomme was fabulous in his first Super Bowl appearance. Showing only early signs of nervousness, he made some impressive throws and hung in the pocket against one of the best defenses in football.
Play of the game
Sure, Vinatieri's game-winning kick was amazing, but you also have to consider what got him there. Troy Brown's 13-yard catch on first-and-20, atoning for his offensive pass interference flag on the previous play, was the key to keeping that drive alive. If faced with second-and-20, who knows what might have happened. That catch set up the opportunity for Brady to complete a few more passes and Vinatieri to make the kick.
Zero sacks on Brady: Coming into the game, everyone knew Carolina's front four would bring pressure, and they did, but as the game wore on, Brady was allowed more and more time to make plays.
I expected the Patriots defense to shut down Stephen Davis, but I also expected them to do a better job defending the pass and putting pressure on Delhomme. Surprisingly, they gave Delhomme chances to escape and make plays with his arm, which is very unlike the Patriots' defense. The Panthers' offensive line deserves kudos for doing an excellent job protecting the quarterback.
Even though the Pats' defense went after Delhomme, I was surprised they didn't present more problems. Usually, the Pats' secondary gets its hands close to the ball, but there wasn't anything close to an interception.
After punting for 22 and 26 yards, Ken Walter's 51-yard boom was key in the Patriots' field position battle.
What's next for the Panthers?
After getting this close to a world championship, the only thing left to do is figure out how to get better. The Panthers have a winning formula: great defense and running the ball. And now they know they've got themselves a quarterback. Delhomme's performance should earn him a long-term contract, and the Panthers can look forward to even more ways of winning.
What's next for the Patriots?
While, in my opinion, two Super Bowls in three years doesn't make the Patriots a dynasty, it does set them up to be a heckuva football team. If they stay healthy and draft well, they're looking at many years of being championship contenders.
They've got a young, talented squad. This year, they played six rookies, four of whom were starters. And with the draft, they'll only add more quality to their arsenal. They can also trade some of their bushel of early-round picks, which would give them tremendous flexibility to move up and get a marquee guy.
The Patriots need to add some depth to their defensive line. And offensively, they know they can throw the ball, so next year they may concentrate a little more on their run game.
They also need to find a way to hold onto their star players. For instance, they need to hold on to Ty Law despite having to go $9.5 million against the cap to keep him.
A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.