HOUSTON -- Until the final two months of the season, the Panthers cornerbacks were considered the team's weakness.
Then, cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., an unusually aggressive rookie, came on. Suddenly, the weakness was a strength. Undaunted, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady carved up the Panthers for 354 yards and 32 completions during a 32-29 victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"In the second half, it seemed like nobody could stop nobody, and whoever had the ball last would win,'' Panthers safety Mike Minter said.
Jake Delhomme hit Ricky Proehl with a 12-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 29-29 with 1:08 left. It brought back memories of Proehl's touchdown for the Rams against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI that tied the game before a Brady field-goal drive won the game.
After this touchdown, John Kasay booted the kickoff out of bounds, giving the Patriots field position with the ball at the 40-yard line.
The Panthers blitzed on the first couple of plays. The pressure on first down forced a Brady incompletion. On the next play, he completed a 13-yard pass to Troy Brown to the Panthers 47. Then Brown was called for offensive interference, giving the Patriots a first and 20 at their 43 with 44 seconds left.
"We felt that penalty would keep them out of field-goal range," Minter said. "All we had to do was hold up and make them punt."
Brady's 13-yard completion to Brown made it second and 7. The Panthers went into zone coverage, and Brady hit tight end Daniel Graham with a four-yarder, setting up a third and 3 at the Panthers' 40
"We were in a two-deep zone," Minter said of the next key play. "Brady had a lot of time at the line of scrimmage and was able to complete the pass."
"It was just a regular play call," said Branch, who finished with 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. "We had run it earlier in the game and it had worked. I just tried to run a good route off the safety once we got that certain coverage (Cover 2). The line did a great job blocking for Tom. He threw the ball, and I just made the catch."
"We have a great two-minute offense," wide receiver David Givens said. "When we're behind, or when we have to use the no-huddle, we can get it done. We've been doing this all year, and we did it once again."
In the end, the Panthers may have covered the seven-point spread, but they couldn't cover the Patriots spread offense.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.