HOUSTON -- The New England Patriots dared Jake Delhomme to beat them. They practically spit in his face. They snatched away his running game, slapped around his linemen like a bunch of Ryder mules and said, in so many words, "You're next."
Well, next time, the Patriots might want to re-think that strategy.
Delhomme, the Carolina Panthers' down-home quarterback, did more for his reputation as a legitimate NFL star in a Super Bowl defeat Sunday than he would have had the game gone as he and his teammates wanted it to go.
During the best quarterback shootout in Super Bowl history, Delhomme morphed from a guy who simply hands off to a master of the passing game. He went from caretaker of one of the league's best running games to a well-rounded quarterback with an unlimited future.
And, with it, Delhomme becomes a rarity in the league -- a loser who has gained the reputation of a winner.
"A loss is a loss. We got beat," a dejected Delhomme drawled after the game. "We lost the biggest game of our life."
Delhomme was the other QB in this star-starved Super Bowl, the counterpart to the dimple-chinned Patriots' hero, Tom Brady. Delhomme was the "aw, shucks" to Brady's big-smiled cool. He was the spicy gumbo to Brady's clam chowder.
No one expected a shootout between these two. Super Bowl XXXVIII set up to be a chess match between the close-to-great Patriots' defense and the punishing running game of the Panthers, featuring 1,400-yard runner Stephen Davis.
But the Patriots were having none of that Carolina running game. So Delhomme was forced into dropping back early -- which is just what the Patriots wanted.
In the early going, Delhomme was terrible. In the first quarter, he was a paltry one-for-six, for one yard. He missed his first two passes in the second quarter, too. And on the next dropback, Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel sacked him, forcing a fumble that led to New England's first touchdown.
But then, in the Panthers' next drive, Delhomme came alive, picking apart the seams of the New England zone. He connected with Ricky Proehl for 13 yards, then Muhsin Muhammad for 23. Delhomme, who expected more man-to-man from the Patriots, found Proehl for another 15 yards and then, two plays later, caught Steve Smith streaking down the sideline with a picture perfect 39-yard pass, against single coverage, for a touchdown.
And the game was on.
"He showed me he's a player. It would have been easy to pack it in early. But he kept coming," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I think he's a guy, if you're a Carolina fan, you have hope you have a good one there."
After starting the game 1-for-9, Delhomme was sizzling for the rest of the game. He connected on 15 of his next 24 passes for 322 yards, finishing 16-of-33 for 323 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"He never ceases to amaze me as far as being on a big stage and coming through with some big plays," said his head coach, John Fox. "He has a lot of heart."
Brady was good, too. He was 32-for-48 for 354 yards. He had three touchdown passes. But he was picked once, a critical end zone interception that let the Panthers back in the game. Together, Brady and Delhomme threw up more passing yards than any two quarterbacks ever have in a Super Bowl.
But if you're looking at their numbers, side by side, Delhomme looks like the winner.
"He has a bright, bright future in this league," Fox said. "I think he showed that [Sunday night]."
Maybe the best thing about Delhomme, though, one of those things that will make him a legitimate star in this league some day, is that afterward he was red-eyed and disconsolate. He didn't care that the Panthers gave the favored Patriots everything they could handle, and then gave them some more.
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In the biggest game of his life, Delhomme played the biggest game of his life. But it wasn't enough to win.
So it wasn't enough.
"I didn't come into this game with a chip on my shoulder. That was the farthest thing from my mind," he said. "I don't know if I proved anything to myself. All I wanted to do was prove something to my teammates."
On the field after the game, as the commotion and celebration swirled around the Patriots, Delhomme watched silently. Afterward, doing his time with the media, he was asked why he stuck around.
"To let it hurt," he said.
He paused a while, fumbled for some more words and then said, "Someday, I'd like to be able to get that rush."
Someday will come soon enough for Jake Delhomme. He proved that Sunday in the way that he lost.