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Fight to the Finish (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2007 2:59PM; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2007 2:59PM
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By Michael Silver

The use of the second person in interviews was one of Montana's habits, a way of deflecting the attention that his greatness attracted. For Brady, too, the praise will keep coming. Said Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, "I told Tommy after the game, 'Your coattails are getting heavy, and I apologize. Right now I'm hanging on for dear life.'"

It's a gracious sentiment but not an entirely accurate one. These Patriots (17-2), as they were two seasons ago, are a quintessential team. Despite the league-high 87 games that its starters lost to injury in 2003, New England won its final 15 games, the second-longest single-season streak in NFL history. The Pats' marquee free-agent signee, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, played just two games in 2003, yet underrated veterans, such as linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest and safety Rodney Harrison (who broke his right arm late in the fourth quarter on Sunday), raised their games to new heights.

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Brady may be the team's lone star, but New England's hero in a headset, coach Bill Belichick, is equally indispensable. In addition to being a shrewd talent evaluator, meticulous in his game preparation and the best defensive strategist of his generation, Belichick, 51, has evolved into a stirring speaker -- at least when behind closed doors with his players. After giving a bland breakdown of strategic priorities during a team meeting last Saturday night, Belichick mesmerized his troops by holding up the Lombardi Trophy that New England had won two years earlier and placing it on a table. The room went silent for a few seconds, and then Belichick finished by saying, "Look, guys, this is what we're playing for. Let's put this week in perspective: It's not about the parties; it's the trophy. Only 37 teams can say they've owned this. You guys can be the 38th."

For much of the first half, neither team looked worthy of the silver hardware. The game was scoreless for the first 26:55, the longest drought to open a Super Bowl. Carolina (14-6) had minus-seven yards of total offense, and Delhomme had completed 1 of 9 passes for a single yard. New England wasn't much better, having squandered a pair of scoring opportunities when Vinatieri missed field goal attempts from 31 and 36 yards. (The latter was blocked by Shane Burton.)

Somebody needed to make a play, and that person was Vrabel, a 28-year-old linebacker who was the team's regular-season sack leader, with 912. With 5:22 left in the second quarter, Vrabel steamed around Panthers left tackle Todd Steussie and chopped the ball out of Delhomme's hand. Defensive end Richard Seymour recovered at the Carolina 20. Four plays later Brady, after a convincing play fake to running back Antowain Smith, threw a five-yard touchdown pass to wideout Deion Branch (10 catches, 143 yards), and the bizarre Tale of Two Games had begun: no points in the game's first 26:55 minutes; 61 in the final 33:05 minutes, including 37 points in the fourth quarter.

By halftime the Patriots led 14-10, and both the game and Jackson's costume were up for grabs. When singing partner Justin Timberlake, in what appeared to be a planned ending to the intermission, yanked off part of Jackson's top at the conclusion of the song Rock Your Body, tens of millions of viewers saw one more body part than NFL or CBS executives would have preferred. However, the network spared viewers the next spectacle, which occurred as Carolina's John Kasay was preparing for his second-half kickoff. A man dressed in a referee's uniform leaped from the stands onto the field, stripped to his jockstrap and did his best Michael Flatley imitation before security guards converged. Bolting into the clear, the nearly nude knucklehead was slammed to the turf by linebacker Matt Chatham, a member of the Patriots' return unit. "I wanted to knock him down but not wrap up," Chatham explained later, then added, "Was I surprised? Hell no. I play for Bill Belichick. You don't think we watched film on that guy all week? I'd seen everything there is to see."

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