SUPER BOWL VICTORY!!!

"What the heck is going on out there?" New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made that rhetorical comment in an interview last season.

He was referring to the oddities that can happen once a game begins and game plans and pre-game strategies give way to the ebb and flow of sports realities however unbelievable they may seem.

That observation was never more relevant than in Super Bowl XXXVIII, a game that started with a zero-zero tie and defensive struggle through almost the entire first two quarters but erupted with 24 combined points in the last three minutes before halftime. A sluggish third quarter then gave way to a scoring frenzy in the fourth, which saw the two teams combine for 37 points.

With the two teams' quarterbacks lighting up the scoreboard, the game had to come down to a nail-biting finish. Since it is football after all, the kickers played a critical role. Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri missed two first half field goal attempts, the second one due to an outstanding block by the Panthers defenders. Strangely, the only kicks Vinatieri has failed to make in a dome have all come in Reliant Stadium: two when the Patriots played the Houston Texans this past November, and the two in Sunday's Super Bowl.

Panthers kicker John Kasay meanwhile gave the Panthers crucial momentum by nailing a 50-yard field goal as the first half expired. After his kick, the score was 14-10, still in favor of New England, but it answered a Patriots scoring drive and kept the Carolina confidence high.

The two kickers switched roles late in the second half, however. The Panthers had just tied the score at 29-all with barely a minute left in the game, when Kasay made a devastating error by kicking the ball out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff. That gave the Patriots the ball at their own 40-yard line by rule, meaning no risk of a turnover on a run back. New England took advantage of its field position, getting into range for Vinatieri to try a 41-yard kick. He redeemed his earlier errors (reportedly by altering his ball-placement que) with a straight shot down the middle for his second career Super Bowl-winning kick.

The offensive explosion, particularly in light of expectations of a defensive struggle, and the last-second dramatics by both teams, made Super Bowl XXXVIII an instant classic.

The surprises are not limited to the confines of this one game, though. Perhaps the eeriest aspect of the tense last-minute drama was its familiarity to the Patriots' last Super Bowl two years ago.

In that game against St. Louis, the Patriots held a slim lead late in the fourth quarter until the Rams tied it up. The player on the receiving end of that touchdown pass was Ricky Proehl. Despite that effort, the Patriots had a minute and 21 seconds on the clock, which turned out to be just enough time for them to drive for a winning Vinatieri field goal.

Against Carolina, the Patriots held a narrow lead late in the fourth quarter until the Panthers tied it up. The player on the receiving end of that touchdown pass: Ricky Proehl, who left St. Louis to join the Panther as a free agent last year. What followed is another example that past is prologue, as the Patriots drove the field for a winning Adam Vinatieri field goal.

The Name Is Brady, Tom Brady

The Patriots quarterback proved once again that he is one of the coolest customers this game has ever seen. Not only is he calm under pressure (recall that he fell asleep on a locker room bench before the team's Super Bowl game two years ago), he is able to perform at the highest level in the most difficult circumstances.

He did it again on Sunday, setting a Super Bowl record with 32 pass completions while putting the ball in the air 48 times against the Carolina Panthers. He led five scoring drives on which he was a combined 19 of 26 and capped three of those drives with touchdown passes. On the second, third, and fourth scoring drives, he had passes of 52 yards, 33 yards, and 25 yards respectively. He is now 6-0 in career playoff games, second only to Troy Aikman (with 7) for the most consecutive wins to start a career. Speaking of his career, he is only in his fourth season in the league and already has two Super Bowl victories.

Brady had one of the game's biggest plays on the first scoring drive. Starting on the Carolina 20-yard line following a Panthers fumble, the Patriots ran twice but quickly found themselves in a 3rd-and-7 situation. Brady dropped back to pass, saw no one open, and took off running himself. No two-way threat at quarterback like Philadelphia's scrambling phenomenon Donovan McNabb, Brady lumbered forward as hard as he could.

His effort earned him a tough 12 yards and the first down and Brady jumped up after taking a hit, pumping his fist in a dramatic first down signal. The play and the emotion he showed clearly sparked his teammates and himself, and Brady threw the game's first touchdown on the next play.

Because of his ability to perform under pressure, Brady has been compared to NFL great Joe Montana, Brady's childhood hero. The comparisons are at most ridiculous (as Brady himself has said) and at the very least premature: Montana won four Super Bowls and three MVP awards, after all. However, both Brady and Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme threw for over 300 yards, only the second pair to ever do so in a Super Bowl. The last to do it: Joe Montana in his Super Bowl XIX victory over Dan Marino.

The Smith (Antowain) and his Hammer (the offensive line)

Brady was justly awarded the game's Most Valuable Player trophy but there were several other worthy candidates. For one, the entire New England offensive line deserves loud praise. Despite 48 pass attempts, Brady was not sacked once, and in fact the line yielded not a single sack in any of their playoff games.

The line that included former practice squad players and backups like Russ Hochstein and Tom Ashworth and a 5th round draft pick rookie at center mastered the far more star-studded defensive line of Carolina. Ashworth in particular seemed to get blown back frequently by Julius Peppers, one of the Panthers' speedy defensive ends, yet Ashworth always managed to hold him up before he could get to Brady. Left tackle Matt Light did a terrific job on Carolina's sacks leader, Mike Rucker, as well.

The Patriots' line was nearly as good in run blocking as it was in pass protection. The Panthers gave up an average of just 91 rushing yards per game through their first three playoff games but the Patriots gashed them for 127 total rushing yards. The Patriots converted seven first downs on the ground (including Brady's 12-yard run) and got into the end zone twice with running plays, once for a touchdown and a second time to successfully complete a two-point conversion.

Running back Antowain Smith also could have plausibly received consideration for MVP. He only ran for 89 total yards and his longest of the game went for 9 yards, but the Patriots aggressively went right after the strength of the Panthers defense, their defensive line. Smith consistently made excellent decisions in cutting back against over-pursuit and showed toughness carrying tacklers for extra yards after contact.

The New England offensive line even opened the occasional enormous hole, which running back Kevin Faulk exploited for 42 total yards. Faulk blasted Carolina for 23 yards on a fourth quarter drive, and he got into the end zone on the two-point conversion on the following drive. On the conversion, which gave the Patriots an essential full touchdown lead, he took a direct snap out of a shotgun formation and rifled through the Panthers' line. That play was one of many examples of the fine game plan called by Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

Mike Vrabel

While Smith would have been a worthy contender for MVP honors, linebacker Mike Vrabel might be an even better runner-up to Brady. He had two of the team's four sacks, forcing a fumble on one of them that the Patriots recovered and quickly turned into seven points.

But he wasn't just a force on defense. Carolina head coach John Fox said he had done extensive film work on the Patriots but there was one play in New England's repertoire that he might have missed. That would be using a linebacker, namely Vrabel, as a tight end in a goal-line situation, but faking his role as a blocker and instead using him as the primary receiver. The Patriots successfully executed that play, with Vrabel scoring a touchdown, against the San Diego Chargers in the 2002 season. They had not gone to that play since then, but pulled it out of their bag of tricks for the Patriots' final touchdown of the fourth quarter.

The play gave Vrabel, a former back-up linebacker and special teams player with the Pittsburgh Steelers who has become a stalwart starter with New England, a chance to show that his hands are useful for more than just smacking down quarterbacks. He made a sure catch of Brady's throw, and, while holding his son Tyler during a post-game interview, said the best way to avoid dropping a pass is to "just pretend like it's a kid." Vrabel proved that the game was safe in his hands.

Vrabel is also one of the "good guys," a humble, hard-working type who seeks to be his best rather than a spotlight that gives the illusion of being the best. As evidence of his grit, Exhibit A is the broken arm he suffered in September that kept him out of only three games, returning to play through the pain for the rest of the season.

As indication of his grace in victory, he told Sports Illustrated after the game: "Never, ever in my wildest dreams did I think I would have two sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl! It's such a blur right now. I'm going to have to see it on TV to believe it really happened."

He's not the only one. Super Bowl XXXVIII had enough twists and turns to go down in history as one of the best ever, and the fact that guys like Vrabel played such a big part in it makes it somehow just a little sweeter.

Note to Fans Everywhere

On a more dour note, what is it with post-victory riots? Why does L.A. after have to burn after the Lakers win a championship? What madness possesses people to create similar havoc in Boston following Sunday's Super Bowl, such that news crews had to be evacuated from parts of town? This idiocy is simply not acceptable. Not acceptable.

Boston should be in a state of excited, perhaps incredulous, bliss and this shameful behavior casts a pall over all that the team accomplished. Find some other ways to cut loose and celebrate, sports fans.

Maybe they need Matt Chatham to straighten them out. The back-up Patriots linebacker and special teams player had perhaps the hit of the day just before the second half started, when he leveled a streaker who had managed to get onto the field, strip down, and run around. The police were having trouble catching him but Chatham teed him up and took him down.

The network did not broadcast the streaker but all accounts indicate that Chatham put his shoulder into the hit and quickly brought an end to his antics. The police were reportedly appreciative, and the fans are, too, for having some levity to relieve the stress of this incredible back-and-forth game.

Thank you, Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick, for the thrilling seasons and games they have given sports fans everywhere, especially those in New England.


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