Late rally lifts Panthers to simulated title

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By Brian P. Kelly

Tom Cool? Mr. Clutch? What have you done for me lately?

Using a steady running game and some timely passes from Jake Delhomme, the Carolina Panthers stunned the New England Patriots 17-13 to capture Super Bowl XXXVIII.

"We've been playing tight games all year long," said Delhomme, who was 17-of-28 for 166 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. "I just knew that if we stayed relaxed, lady luck would be on our side."

Judging by what happened here in Reliant Stadium, it might have been some of Delhomme's New Orleans voodoo rather than lady luck that tilted the scale in the Panthers' favor.

Two years ago Adam Vinatieri was a folk-hero, kicking the Patriots to two unforgettable wins in the playoffs, ending with his game-winning 48-yard field goal against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. On Sunday, he booted away almost all of New England's chances by missing two field goals, one from 30 yards and the other from 44.

"I don't know what happened," a tearful Vinatieri explained in the Patriots somber locker room. "Maybe they opened the doors on the south end or something. I just don't know."

What we do know was that Delhomme came up big when his team needed him the most. After Steve Smith scored on a 40-yard reverse and Deion Branch answered with a 13-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter, Delhomme engineered a drive for the ages down 13-10 with 4:37 to go in the game. Starting at his own 28-yard line, Delhomme connected with Super Bowl MVP Muhsin Muhammad on a pair of out patterns, the first for 11 yards and the second, one that just eluded Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, for 32 yards that brought the ball to the New England 31.

After Delhomme misfired on play-action to Muhammad on first down, Stephen Davis took a pitch eight yards setting up the key play of the drive. With the Panthers showing their full-house backfield, Patriots safety Rodney Harrison crept to the line to give New England its eighth man "in the box." As Davis and the entire Panthers offensive line slammed to the left, Delhomme deftly faked the handoff and scampered six yards for the first down at the Patriots 17.

"We noticed at halftime that they (the Patriots defense) packed the box when we went to our full-house look," Delhomme said. "I'm not exactly Michael Vick out there but thankfully the coaches believed I could get the job done on a bootleg."

The drive was capped with a touchdown on a fade route to Muhammad that saw the 6-foot-2 receiver out-jump 5-foot-8 cornerback Tyrone Poole to put the Panthers ahead.

"With first and goal, I'm sure the Patriots were thinking Stephen Davis," said Muhammad, who caught four passes for 61 yards. "But when we saw the matchup of Poole on me, we had to take advantage."

While Vinatieri was absolutely un-Vinatieri-like, quarterback Tom Brady still had a chance to bail the Patriots out and the Panthers had cause to worry. Flashback two years: Brady drives the Patriots 53 yards in the final 1:30 en route to Vinatieri's game-winning field goal.

Back to the present and armed with three timeouts, Brady needed to go 80 yards in 1:34 for the miracle. An 11-yard pass to Branch and 12-yard pitch and catch to David Givens moved New England to its own 43. An 18-yard rope that Brady squeezed into Bethel Johnson before Panthers safety Mike Minter blasted Johnson out of bounds had the Patriots at the Panthers 39 with 1:17 to go and two timeouts.

With the Panthers adjusting from their soft zone to press man coverage, the Patriots went for the home run. After Ricky Manning Jr. whiffed on his jam at the line, Branch was able to get behind the secondary with ease, making a touchdown look like a sure thing. However, it was anything but sure as Carolina tackle Kris Jenkins bowled over Patriots guard Russ Hochstein, forcing Brady to hurry his throw. As the toss soared through the air, it appeared to be off target, perhaps blown off course by the collective gasp from the 65,826 on hand. What happened next depends on whom you ask.

With Branch in a full sprint to the end zone, he caught up to the ball near the back pylon. Stumbling when pigskin and hands met, Branch took a moment to gather the ball into his body before tumbling to the turf. But before the Patriots could celebrate, Branch was ruled out of bounds. A replay, which was ambiguous no matter the referee's initial decision, would prove inconclusive.

Demoralized, the Patriots gained no further yards, turning the ball over on downs when Al Wallace, in for the injured Mike Rucker, recorded his second sack of the game.

"I learned a lot of clich?s in my previous jobs around the league but they applied today," a jubilant John Fox said. "We pushed our chips to the middle of the table and just won, baby!"

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