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Published: Monday, 2/2/2004

Super Bowl an offensive shocker

HOUSTON - In everyone s haste to paint the New England Patriots defense with the same brush that coated the Steel Curtain, the Purple People Eaters, the Doomsday defense and others - although there are few of that ilk - we may have failed to mention a few things.

Namely, the Patriots have an offensive line.

Namely, the Patriots have a running game.

Oh, yeah. Did we mention Deion Branch?

And that noted pass receiver Mike Vrabel, whose fourth-quarter touchdown catch at Reliant Stadium was likely his first since pee-wee ball back in Akron?

It wasn t the New England defense that did the Carolina Panthers in last night in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Far from it.

In an NFL title game where yards and points figured to be squeezed like blood from a rock, the Patriots had to punch their scorecard into the 30s to escape with their second Roman Numeral thriller in three seasons, Adam Vinatieri again doing the honors in the waning seconds with a 41-yard field goal that gave New England a 32-29 victory.

No, no way was Carolina s so-called conservative offense squelched by New England s defense. Heck, if anything the Patriots secondary was as exposed as Janet Jackson.

The two teams combined for 37 fourth-quarter points and none of the previous 37 Super Bowls had seen anything like that.

This one belonged to the offenses and like all great shootouts, it came down to the offense that touched the ball last.

The lion s share of the credit, of course, went to quarterback Tom Brady when they handed him the most valuable player trophy for the second time in three years. We certainly won t suggest that it wasn t deserved. He led two valiant marches on his team s final possessions, one after the Patriots had fallen behind, another after they had been tied.

But the New England offense is more than Brady.

This was a win for Brady s Bunch.

An offensive line and running game that was overshadowed by its Carolina counterparts produced 127 yards on the ground, paced by Houston native Antowain Smith s 83 yards on 26 punishing carries.

Branch stepped into the spotlight with 10 catches for 143 yards and one touchdown.

This game between teams that had won all season with defense, defense and more defense, produced a combined 868 yards of offense.

Brady was brilliant - a rare interception in the end zone was his only mistake - with 32 completions in 48 attempts for 354 yards.

Although it didn t start out that way, this turned out to also be a night for the Carolina offense to shine.

The book on the Panthers was power football with the occasional spicy Cajun dash of Jake Delhomme.

After a slow start - he had but one completion and his Panthers had minus-7 yards of offense after their first six possessions - Delhomme had a career night with 295 yards through the air.

With him at the top of his game, it appeared the Panthers had the Pats right where they wanted them in the late going.

The Panthers rarely win from ahead. They need to face a little adversity, have that bile bubbling deep in the pits of their bellies. They have to face defeat before they can find a reason to win.

Well, they surely faced it last night. Down by 11 points seconds into the fourth quarter. Down by seven points with 2:51 to play.

Never say die is the word on Carolina, which won eight times this season on its final possession.

This time, though, the final possession belonged to New England.

In the proud tradition of Joe Montana and John Elway, quarterbacking legends who won multiple Super Bowls during careers that were built on last-second heroics, Brady again rode to the rescue.

He hit Branch for the final time on a 17-yard gain to the Carolina 23 with 0:09 remaining, capping a 37-yard push in just one minute after the Panthers John Kasay picked a dreadful time to launch a kickoff out of bounds.

Enter Vinatieri, whose game-winner two years ago as time expired came from 48 yards and sealed a remarkable playoff run for the fine kicker.

This time, he had some demons to exorcise. He had missed earlier from 31 and 36 yards, the second one being blocked.

But the game-winner was dead center, ending a night of astounding offensive fireworks that were unexpected at the very least.



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