22 February 2004 | stp43
The Greatest Superbowl
For decades the Superbowl was derided as a spectacle where the hype and the TV ads were more memorable than the game itself, but with the Denver Broncos' win in Superbowl XXXII the game itself retook the lead in importance, a trend continued in Superbowl XXXIV's photo finish win by the St. Louis Rams, accelerated in the New England Patriots' last-second field goal triumph in XXXVI, and finally cemented in the most exciting AFC-NFC World Championship Game ever.
The Patriots had emerged as the most successful Superbowl entry since the 1972 Miami Dolphins went the entire season unbeaten, and tellingly, both the 2003 Pats and 1972 Phins won behind their defense - Bill Arnsparger's defensive line in 1972 was called the No Name D, while the Pats defense under Romeo Crennel coined The Homeland Defense for their playoff run.
Facing against the Patriots was the upstart Carolina Panthers, two seasons removed from a 1-15 record and now under coach John Fox compared with the 2001 Patriots, particularly with dark horse young quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Panthers pulled two upset triumphs in their NFC playoff run, first a double overtime win in St. Louis via a touchdown at the very start of the second OT, then a last-second field goal triumph in Philidelphia against the perennial NFC title bridesmaid Eagles.
The Patriots were listed as seven-point favorites, but a great many fans were genuinely angry toward the Patriots, deriding their 2003 schedule even though they were slated with a dozen teams with winning records in 2002, and wound up winning nine games against teams with winning 2003 records. Fan hatred (and media lack of respect) of the Patriots stemmed from their lack of dominant big name players, a situation in perfect keeping with coach Bill Belichick's anti-star approach to football.
The Panthers likewise lacked big names, and many predicted a boring game monopolized by defense. And indeed, for almost the entirety of the first half neither team could score. But a Delhomme sack yielded a fumble and the Patriots nailed a TD with some three minutes in the half. The Panthers responded with an air assault that overwhelmed the stingy ground defense of the Pats, tying the score. Tom Brady and the Pats responded with another TD, but a squib kick led to a last-second Carolina field goal ending the first half.
Several embarrassing incidents during halftime festivities did not affect the game, as the third quarter went scoreless, but starting the final quarter the Patriots nailed a touchdown. Carolina responded with their own touchdown, but missed a 2-point conversion. A Tom Brady interception in the end-zone set up the longest score from scrimmage in Superbowl history, an 85-yard Delhomme bomb for a touchdown. The Panthers went for two again and failed, and the Patriots responded with a time-consuming drive that yielded a touchdown, and the Pats went for two and Kevin Faulk ran it in, putting the score to 29-22. But the Panthers could not be eliminated, striking back and tying the game with just over one minute left.
From a 27-minute opening span without a score, Superbowl XXXVIII racked up a combined 24 points in three minutes, then after a scoreless third quarter the game racked up another 34 combined points - a total of eight touchdowns, one field goal, and a two-point conversion, stats that brought comparisons with the popular indoor Arena Football League whose 19th season opened one week later. And it came down to a final drive by Tom Brady and the Patriots, a drive to cap off what most who witnessed it would say was the greatest Superbowl ever played.