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The ultimate team

Patriots get a little of everything from everyone to win second Super Bowl

Updated: Monday February 2, 2004 10:16AM
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SI Writers
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HOUSTON -- Go ahead, tell me your top three reasons why the Patriots won their second Super Bowl title in three seasons Sunday night at Reliant Stadium, besting those plucky Carolina Panthers 32-29 in a Super Bowl that is destined to be remembered as the bore that turned into a classic.

Was it the domination of New England's offensive line, which didn't allow a sack for the third consecutive playoff game and rendered Carolina's most intimidating unit -- its defensive line -- an afterthought?

Was it kicker Adam Vinatieri, the coolest cat in all of New England, whose 41-yard game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining proved that dreams do come true -- twice?

Or was it the comeback touch of quarterback Tom Brady, the wonder boy who became the youngest two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback at 26, wrapping up his second Super Bowl MVP honor in the process?

As usual with the Patriots, it was that, and more. Much more. In the form of team ball. Team ball. And more team ball.

Team ball that featured linebacker Mike Vrabel, whose sack and strip of Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme set up the game's first points late in the second quarter, and whose 1-yard touchdown catch while lined up as a tight end with 2:51 remaining rallied the Patriots from their only deficit of the game.

Team ball that featured receiver Deion Branch, who had a game-high 10 catches for 143 yards and one touchdown. And team ball from a grinding Patriots running game that for once was used to set up New England's effective short passing game, rather than the other way around. Antowain Smith hammered away for a game-best 83 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, and Kevin Faulk chipped in with 42 yards on six attempts.

As it has all season, New England needed something from everybody to beat the Panthers. And, once again, the Patriots got it.

"I mean, we are the ultimate team,'' Patriots cornerback Ty Law said, with the emphasis on the final word in that sentence. "If you look at the track record throughout the season, it wasn't always the same guys making plays. It was different guys making plays week in and week out.

"It was always unexpected. You never knew who was going to come through. This is a total team effort, and we don't preach it just to preach it. We really believe that. Because as a team you can accomplish a lot more, and we did just that.''

In winning their 15th consecutive game -- the second longest single-season winning streak in NFL history -- the Patriots got so many team-ball contributions from so many different sources that it almost was ironic that in the end they relied on their proven Super Bowl formula: Brady leading a last-minute drive, and Vinatieri calmly booting the game-winner, followed by confetti and euphoria.

It worked so well two years ago in New Orleans against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams that the Patriots saw no reason to change the script. Even if Vinatieri earlier missed from 31 yards and had a 36-yard attempt blocked - both in the first half.

"Nobody makes them all, but if you've got to have one kick with everything on the line, he's the guy I want kicking it,'' New England head coach Bill Belichick said. "It was a great kick, an awesome kick. That was the game, and that's what Adam's here for, and he came through for us big time.''

The Patriots got a huge assist from Panthers kicker John Kasay in laying the ground work for their game-winning drive. It was Kasay's ensuing out-of-bounds kickoff after Ricky Proehl's 12-yard game-tying touchdown catch with 1:08 remaining that gave New England commanding field position at its 40.

Seemingly, whatever it takes, that's what the Patriots get. Even when it comes to good fortune.

"We had three timeouts and maybe 50 seconds, whatever it was,'' Vinatieri said. "There was maybe a little déjà vu of two years ago, knowing Tom and the fellas are going to march down the field and get us an opportunity. Tom was amazing again. He did it again.

"But you never know with us. If ever you give us any time - look out.''

Brady and the Patriots had time all night because of the job done by New England's largely unheralded offensive line.

The vaunted Carolina defensive line didn't lay a hand on the Patriots quarterback, and New England's offensive line was consistently the more physical unit, the aggressor in a skirmish that was expected to be dominated by the Panthers' fearsome foursome. Carolina's Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker combined for just seven tackles and three assists, with no sacks, fumbles forced or big plays of any kind. New England's offensive front smacked the Panthers' line in the mouth, and the whipping helped the Patriots dictate the pace of the game with a rushing game that produced 127 yards on 35 attempts (3.6 average).

On this night, it was the Patriots' ultimate example of team ball.

"Not bad for a bunch of bums who aren't any good, who everybody says can't play,'' crowed Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, of his linemen. "By the way, it's Russ Hochstein [pronounced Hoke-stein], OK, Warren? Hochstein.''

That, of course, was a well-delivered jab at Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who maligned his former teammate, Hochstein, New England's left guard, as a career backup in the course of the two-week Super Bowl buildup.

And Weis wasn't finished, detailing just how the Patriots' offensive line was determined to come out aggressive and take it to Carolina's star-studded defensive line.

"Going into this game, we knew their defensive line was going to play aggressive, because that's the strength of their team, their defense,'' Weis said. "What you try to do is you try to play into their strengths and try to take their strengths away. Between play-action and running the ball inside, whether it's for two yards or whether it's for 10 yards, between those two things, it kind of slows them down.

"But give the line a lot of credit, give Antowain a lot of credit, give the tight ends a lot of credit. And the receivers got off the jam. All week long we've been just listening to those guys in the other locker room say they're going to ride us off the line of scrimmage, and how it's not even going to be competitive. I think Tommy threw for about 350 [yards, actually 354].''

Vrabel's touchdown was another quintessential Patriots team-ball moment. How many other squads wouldn't think twice about throwing to a linebacker playing tight end at the 1-yard line, with the Super Bowl on the line and fewer than three minutes remaining? But that's New England, where everybody is a potential play-maker at any moment.

"It was an unbelievable feeling, because I knew all week that I had a chance (to score on that play),'' said Vrabel, who was the team's third tight end in goal line situations on Sunday. "Tom put it in there and I just didn't want to drop it. I pretended it was a kid.

"That was a scary game. These were two tough teams. This was Ali-Frazier, man. That's how it felt out there. We hit them, they hit us. But I'll tell you what, I'm going to take my chances with Tom Brady, with Troy Brown, Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri, every day of the week with a minute left.''

Who wouldn't after watching the Patriots produce a pair of Super Bowl championships in the past three years?

"It wasn't the prettiest thing, but we found a way to win, and that's the mark of a good football team,'' Law said. "This is a team sport. This is not track. This is football. It takes 11 guys on the field at one time to get things done. We're champions and everybody had a hand in this thing.

"We find ways to win and that's all that matters. Whether it's good, bad or ugly, we're proud to be the last team standing.''

The last team standing because in New England, team ball comes first.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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