Pats, principles hold up

2-2-04, 10:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ Super Bowls are like cars and birthdays. You remember them all, but not all in the same way.

Such was the XXXVIIIth model for the Patriots. Like their win over the Rams two years ago, it came by three points on their last play, an Adam Vinatieri indoor field goal, at the end of a Joe Montana-like last-ditch drive by Tom Brady that we may have to start calling Tom Brady-like last-ditch drive.

But any resemblance to Sunday night's 32-29 win over the Panthers here at Reliant Stadium and the 20-17 win over St. Louis in New Orleans is purely coincidental.

Back then, the Pats were virtually perfect in turning the Rams' greatest Show on Turf into a B movie. On Sunday, they had to overcome a variety of gaffes and outscore Carolina in a wild fourth quarter in which they fell behind for the first time since Nov. 23.

For the Patriots, it was Resilient Stadium as Brady rebounded from an end-zone interception and Vinatieri recovered from a missed field goal and a blocked field goal.

The game also proved a number of age-old football principles:

Blitzes giveth and blitzes taketh away, which is why big veteran cornerbacks are still the most desirable assets in a crunch-time game. Panthers cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.'s great post-season ride had a bumpy end when the 5-8, 185-pounder got thrown around by 6-0, 215-pound receiver David Givens down the stretch.

And don't ask the Patriots' defense about the rookie fourth-quarter struggles of safety Eugene Wilson and cornerback Asante Samuel.

Hall of Fame quarterbacks are born and broken in Super Bowls. Instead of his steady 145-yard effort of two years ago, Brady lit it up for 354 yards to win an aerial circus.

"It was a terrific football game to watch. Not a terrific game to coach," said New England coach Bill Belichick. "I was having a heart attack there. It was a great spectator game. It did come down to certainly a lot of different elements."

The elements conspired to cruelly rob Panthers wide receiver Ricky Proehl again. It was Proehl who tied the game for the Rams two years ago with 90 seconds left, only to see Brady lead the Pats down the field. This time, Proehl left him only 68 seconds, and it was still enough time for Brady.

"You could see the look on their faces," Proehl said. "They came out talking trash, ready to walk all over us. I give them a lot of credit. They're a great team. They've earned it. But we gained respect from the New England Patriots. I guarantee you that."

The Panthers' vaunted four-man defensive line couldn't get to Brady, and in trying to protect a 21-20 lead with five minutes left they came blitzing. It allowed Givens to work one-on-one with Manning for catches of 25 and 18 yards to set up linebacker Mike Vrabel's goal-line touchdown catch with 2:51 left.

Of course, the fun was just beginning, and the Panthers reverted back to a zone defense when the Pats got the ball back, and Brady carved them up on that, too.

"Part of our game plan was to be physical because they play physical," Givens said. "I know I'm one of the more physical guys on our offense. When they had man coverage on us, I was able to use my strength to my advantage."

Brady politely blew off all references to Joe Montana after the game, but at age 26 (he'll be 27 in August) he became the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls in taking Troy Aikman's mantle.

"This is my fourth year. Hopefully the best football I'm going to play is ahead of me," Brady said. "I'm going to try and get better. Believe me, everything was not perfect out there."

But tight end Daniel Graham, noting that Brady has two more rings than NFL co-MVPs Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, said, "Nothing has to be said about him. Maybe they'll stop handing out the MVP to just anybody."

Brady threw one of his rare interceptions with 7:38 left in the game when the Panthers baited him into a throw across the middle, but then hit 10 of his last 14 passes for 103 yards.

"He's never down. He's never out," Vinatieri said. "He's a true general."

Brady was saying the same thing about Vinatieri, calling him the best clutch kicker in the league. Saying it about his whole team. Vinatieri calmly changed his spikes at the half after the miscues to accommodate the artificial surface.

"I got a longer spike on my plant foot," Vinatieri said. "The painted area was a little slick out there. A lot of the guys switched to a longer spike to get a little more traction. It wasn't a big deal on the green areas, but the painted areas at the center of the field where I was kicking off."

It's funny, but the only two indoor misses Vinatieri ever had came here back in a Nov. 23 game he ended up winning in overtime. He said he just pushed his first kick Sunday, a 31-yarder, and no one gets upset when the Panthers block a kick, which 6-6 lineman Shane Burton did on Vinatieri's second try, a 36-yarder.

"They get paid, too," said punter/holder Ken Walter. "You know what Carolina does."

The bigger the game, doesn't it always come down to special teams? Kasay had five winning field goals this year, but when he drilled his kickoff out-of-bounds in a 29-29 game, the penalty put Brady in control at his own 40-yard line.

"I caught it just a little late," Kasay said. "I was trying to make a really good kick. I got a little high and a little outside on the ball."

Vinatieri could feel for Kasay, wishing the Pats had returned the kick to the 40, instead.

"It's definitely a fraternity," Vinatieri said, and Walter felt particularly bad. As a former Panther, he's close to Kasay and they went out to dinner last week.

"Knowing John, he's taking this on himself," Walter said. "But if you look at this game, what we did, the turnovers, it wasn't just that."

But it was the last thing. Vinatieri made a mistake on a kickoff, too, but it came at the end of the half instead of the end of the game. He didn't get a squib kick deep enough with 18 seconds left, and the Panthers were able to parlay it into Kasay's 50-yard field goal on the last play of the half to cut the lead to 14-10.

"Just like the field goals, you can't dwell on that stuff, because there's usually going to be another chance and you have to make good on it," Vinatieri said.

Which is exactly what this team did all night. Make that all year. Walter had been booed this year at home, and even got cut in mid-year before coming back. And, on Sunday, he rebounded from two miserable twentysomething punts to drill a 51-yarder late in the third quarter.

He had the focus for that last hold. Walter apologized to the camera people after the game because he was screaming at them on the sidelines, trying to give Vinatieri room to breathe and practice kicking into the net.

"I'm sure everybody in Boston was counting on me to get that hold down," Walter said.

Walter did it two years ago, but back then he was thinking about the Red Sox and curses and what his name would be like with a flub. But he said Sunday night he had no such thoughts. Two years ago, he watched the kick go through. This year, he didn't have to.

"The ball exploded off his foot," Walter said. "I knew. I saw it go in at the end. Then I was trying to find him to jump on him."

Nothing had to be said before the kick.

"We don't talk to kickers," said guard Joe Andruzzi, "and they don't talk to us. They're in their own world."

Walter was laughing about that Sunday night. How teammates come up to him during practice while the kickers are hanging out doing whatever kickers do and say, "I'd love to have your job."

"Then you ask them, 'Would you like it on Sunday?' " Walter said. "And they say, 'No.' That ought to tell you something."

It tells you the bigger the game, the more special teams matter.

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