- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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HOUSTON -- The Carolina Panthers had been here before.
They were locked up in another close game and, in their committed minds, they were going to win this one, even if it was the last game of the season.
"No doubt," quarterback Jake Delhomme said following Carolina's 32-29 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII. "It was like we had done all season long. We had the feeling. We were going to win."
The Panthers were a clutch team in a historic sense this season. Their seven wins by three points or less and three overtime victories both tied NFL records. And as Super Bowl XXXVIII leaked down to its final moments, it was clear this would be another tight one.
"No one gave us a chance all year and we fought our butts off all season long," said Panthers wide receiver Ricky Proehl. "We've never given up. We answered their scores all night long. Again, with just over two minutes left in the ballgame, we went the length of the field and we scored to tie the ballgame up.
"I can't say enough about the character of this football team."
But this time, it didn't happen. It was the Patriots who made a few more plays when it mattered most. Adam Vinatieri kicked a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to give New England a heart-stopping victory.
"We knew it was going to be a dog fight. From the first kickoff on, we were going to fight our butts off. We've done it all year. What can you say?"
You can start by saying that the Panthers played low-risk opportunistic football for the first and third quarters as they felt their way into the game. Each time the Patriots scored, they rallied to even the score or close the gap -- it happened four times in a remarkable display of resolve.
"We were going to come out and establish the run with Stephen (Davis), go with play-action passes and do what we always do," Delhomme said. "But when they went up 11, we had to start passing the ball."
Oddly enough, the passes that took a backseat to the running game early in the season began to find their mark.
But even as Delhomme and the Panthers were stepping out of character, so too was the Carolina defense. The unit that shut people down all season long seemed to tire as the game wore on. The pressure that flustered Brady in the first half seemed to wane ever so slightly. The Panthers' talented defensive line came close to getting a handful of Brady's jersey a handful of times, but in the second half, the pressure all but evaporated.
The Panthers have been an exceedingly well-coached team all season long, but head coach John Fox may have erred when he elected to go for a two-point conversion with 12:39 left in the game. Delhomme missed Muhsin Muhammad and the Panthers trailed 21-16. When the Panthers took a 22-21 lead, they tried another two-pointer and Delhomme missed another pass in the end zone, to Kevin Dyson.
Given the way the remainder of the game played out, those points were crucial. Had the Panthers taken the two PATs, then the Patriots would have kicked the extra point (instead of Kevin Faulk's two-point conversion run) on the go-ahead score and taken a 28-24 lead. After the final Panthers touchdown, Vinatieri's last-second field goal only would have tied the game.
The Panthers, who pride themselves on good special teams, also made a huge kicking game error at a critical juncture.
After they tied the game 29-29, placekicker John Kasay popped the kickoff out of bounds.
"John just didn't hit it," Fox said later. "He was trying to drive it deep and hooked it right."
Not only did it fail to run any time off the clock, it set up the Patriots up with a first down at their own 40-yard line with 68 seconds left. Not surprisingly, Brady was able to drive the Patriots into position for the winning field goal.
"It's been a great ride," Fox said. I'm very proud the way they fought -- not only in this game, but throughout the playoffs. I told them before the game I was proud of them no matter what happened. I reiterated that after the fact. They fought hard. We just came up a little short. We have a lot to build on."
Muhammad, whose 85-yard touchdown catch was the longest play in Super Bowl history, said he felt the game was following a typical script.
"Those are the games you live for, the opportunity to have a two-minute drive at the end of the game and catch a game-winning touchdown," Muhammad said. "Those are the games you live for."
And, in the end, die for.
"I really felt like we had a chance to get to OT," said Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker. "Ball game's tied, we've got to get a stop. They made some passes on us and we didn't give our offense a chance."
Said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, "Right now, there are 31 other losers in the NFL. If you don't win, it doesn't mean anything. Whoever has the ball last is going to win the thing.
"We just couldn't get it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com
23hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo