While the Pats' defense flustered McNabb (30 of 51, 357 yards, three touchdowns) from the outset, ultimately sacking him four times and intercepting three passes while limiting him to zero rushing yards, New England's offense began the game as if in a slumber. Having fallen behind 7--0 on McNabb's six-yard scoring pass to tight end L.J. Smith with 10:02 left in the second quarter--just the second time in their last 27 games they'd failed to score first--the Patriots drove to the Philly four, only to lose the ball when Brady fumbled after bumping running back Kevin Faulk on a play-fake.
New England finally tied the game on Brady's four-yard pass to wideout David Givens 1:16 before halftime and took a 14--7 lead with 11:09 left in the third quarter on a two-yard scoring toss from Brady to Vrabel, marking the second consecutive Super Bowl in which the moonlighting linebacker caught a touchdown pass. Yet when McNabb whipped a 10-yard scoring pass to running back Brian Westbrook to tie the game again with 3:39 remaining in the third quarter, the raucous Philly fans asserted themselves like Broad Street Bullies.
If the Eagles' faithful thought Brady would be fazed, they haven't been paying attention the past four years, during which the 2000 sixth-round draft pick has ensured himself a place in the Hall of Fame. Following an emotional week in which his 94-year-old grandmother Margaret died, Brady exuded an eerie calm when the situation was most tense. He was 4 for 4 on the Pats' nine-play, 66-yard drive, with running back Corey Dillon providing the go-ahead points on a two-yard run with 13:44 left. On New England's next drive Brady and Branch hooked up on the play of the night, a pass over the middle in which the third-year receiver leaped over the back of Philly cornerback Sheldon Brown to turn a possible pick into a 19-yard reception. Six plays later Vinatieri's 22-yard field goal put the Pats up 24--14.
"Outside of that terrible first quarter, we felt we had the game under control," said Branch, who had 133 receiving yards on 11 catches--tying the Super Bowl record shared by Cincinnati Bengals tight end Dan Ross and San Francisco 49ers wideout Jerry Rice, the last receiver to be named MVP (16 years ago). That followed up a 10-catch, 143-yard effort in New England's 32--29 Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers last season.
Yet for all his brilliance, Branch wasn't the most impressive wideout on the field. That distinction belonged to Owens, who 61/2 weeks after surgery on his ankle and leg responded with a nine-catch, 122-yard show of grit. Alas, the same could not be said for the Eagles' other loudmouth receiver, Mitchell, who had angered the easy-to-rile Harrison in the wake of the Pats' 41--27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game by saying he "had something" for the two-time Pro Bowler and that he didn't know the names of New England's cornerbacks. Though Harrison and his friends in the secondary had hoped to hit Mitchell harder than the media slammed Jacksonville (which was derided all week as a second-rate Super Bowl city), they had to settle for limiting him to a single catch for 11 yards.
"All he does is talk," Belichick said of Mitchell long after the game as he sat in his locker room office, his feet propped on a desk. "He's terrible, and you can print that. I was happy when he was in the game."
The coach undoubtedly was pleased with Eagles coach Andy Reid's curious decision to forgo a no-huddle offense while trailing by 10 with 5:40 to go. When Philadelphia (15--4) completed a 79-yard scoring drive with McNabb's 30-yard strike to wideout Greg Lewis, only 1:48 remained. After the Pats' Christian Fauria recovered David Akers's onside kick, the Eagles' defense held, but New England punter Josh Miller pinned Philly at its own four with 46 seconds remaining, and Harrison's interception set off a fitting release of red, white and blue confetti.
Belichick, his gray, hooded pullover doused with Gatorade (thanks to Bruschi, whose soaking also caught the coach's 86-year-old father, Steve), celebrated by initiating a hearty group hug with his outgoing coordinators, Crennel and offensive whiz Charlie Weis. Both men were about to become head coaches--Crennel with the Cleveland Browns, Weis at Notre Dame--but first they wanted to savor a second consecutive 17--2 season and the team's historic run. "What did we say, Charlie?" Belichick asked about the words exchanged during the trio's embrace. "I forget."
Weis smiled. "We said we'd been together a long time," he recalled. "We'd had some good times, some bad, but these are moments we'd always have together. And it wouldn't matter that we wouldn't be together anymore. You can be the richest man in the world and not be able to buy moments like this."
Belichick's next challenge will be working with two new coordinators, but enough will be the same in New England to make the Pats the team to beat again in '05. "Five years ago, when I was about to hire Bill, we were having dinner at the Capital Grille in Chestnut Hill," Patriots owner Robert Kraft recalled after the game. "I said, 'Promise me that when we have success that you won't change,' and he has been true to that promise." The coach demands similar humility from his players, who in the words of backup linebacker and special teams ace Matt Chatham, are "all drinking the Kool-Aid. Everybody buys into the team concept, and we'd be stupid not to."