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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 9�. 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 die 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."
Well, almost everything. "He knocked the crap out of him," Brady said. "That was the best tackle I've seen in a while."
In truth this game was full of big hits. Things had gotten nasty during the teams' previous meeting at the end of the 2001 season, a game New England won 38-6. The Pats were heading toward their first Super Bowl, and the Panthers were losing their 15th straight game. There were harsh words and skirmishes, which helped explain why players from both teams engaged in a stare-down near midfield before Sunday's game. "They were trying to intimidate us," Johnson said. "That's when you knew it was on."
True to their personality under second-year coach John Fox, the Panthers never gave up the fight in their first Super Bowl. "It was a very physical game," said New England linebacker and special teams captain Larry Izzo, "and, like a bad virus, that team wouldn't go away." The most potent Carolina player was Delhomme (16 for 33,323 yards, three touchdowns), who nearly eclipsed Brady as a clutch pocket passer.
Down 21-10 following Smith's two-yard touchdown run 11 seconds into the fourth quarter, Delhomme put together a six-play, 81-yard drive culminating in DeShaun Foster's 33-yard touchdown dash down the left sideline. Brady, after driving New England to the Panthers' nine, then made a decidedly un-Montana-like mistake, lobbing a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by cornerback Reggie Howard with 7:38 left. Three plays later Delhomme lofted a beautiful spiral to Muhsin Muhammad (four catches, 140 yards), who caught the ball in stride at the New England 33 and completed an 85-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.
Carolina missed a second consecutive two-point conversion attempt, but suddenly the Pats were behind 22-21 with 6:53 left, and there were dry mouths along the New England sideline. The Pats hadn't trailed in a game since a Nov. 23 overtime victory over the Houston Texans in the same stadium, but Harrison told corner-back Ty Law, "Hey, man, there's no reason for us to worry. We've got Tom Brady."
On Sunday, Brady looked every bit as unfazed as his idol, Montana, did in rallying the San Francisco 49ers to a last-minute victory over the Cincinnati Bengals XV Super Bowls ago. "He was poised," defensive end Mike Rucker said of Brady, who wasn't sacked by the Panthers (box, left). "We hit him a couple of times, but he'd get right back up." On second-and-goal from the one with 2:55 left, New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called 136 X Cross Z Flag, and a certain moonlighting tight end got chills: Vrabel, with two sacks and a forced fumble, had already made a huge impact, but now he was about to catch his first pass since September 2002. After a typically smooth play fake to Smith, Brady saw Vrabel flash across the middle and flicked the ball to him. Said Vrabel, a father of two boys, "I held it like it was my third child." The ensuing two-point conversion—Kevin Faulk scored on a run up the middle after taking a direct snap—gave the Pats a 29-22 lead, but the Panthers weren't done.