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Jackson's exposure overshadows 'real' action

HOUSTON -- For me, this game will forever be known as Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD.

But not because of Janet Jackson's own 38-DD "wardrobe reveal." Or even the nude dancing backfat-billboard guy who is probably, at this moment, being sentenced by some crusty cowboy Texas judge to 417 years in a maximum security prison. No, for me, the moment this whole thing transformed from a 'normal' Super Bowl into Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD came roughly 24 hours earlier when the glass doors to the Playboy party swung open and I was allowed to hop around for a while in Heff's world.

Since then, despite all that went on during the lame halftime show and the superb contest on the field, I've been racking my brain for a way to accurately describe the highlight of my week in Houston. Let's try this: within 30 seconds of entering the soirée I was surrounded by dozens of women in their underpants (although the garments weren't really under anything and there wasn't really enough material to qualify as pants.) This I could handle. Then I noticed that some of them were taking breaks from dancing to play football video games with patrons.

The sight of this sent me scrambling to call my older brother, Greg, and when his voicemail kicked in I yelled: "Imagine we're 15 again and we've been given an unlimited budget to create the greatest party the world has ever seen … now, add ice cream, video games and butt cleavage as far as the eye can see and you'll get close to what I'm experiencing right now."

Much later, before collapsing into bed, I scribbled the words, "Mars Rover" in my notebook. Now, I'm not 100 percent certain but what I think this message meant was that the Playboy party -- and the rest of Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD for the matter -- turned out to be a lot like how I used to think of the red planet.

I've always known that it existed somewhere out there in deep space, 100 million miles away. And then, WHAM, the next thing I know NASA's Rover is beaming pictures of the place right to my laptop. Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD was kinda like that. See, I always knew this stuff existed, sure, but it always seemed 100 million miles away and then, WHAM, I'm surrounded by beer and Playmates in acrylic paint 24 hours before taking my front row seat at the most exciting (and bizarre) Super Bowl I've ever witnessed.

(Hats off to Houston, by the way, for a fine job hosting. The only thing I'd change about the entire experience was Houstonians' quivering Sally Field-like obsession with what outsiders were saying about them. Shoot, you can't worry what sportwriters say or write. We are the kind of people who would win the lottery and then bitch about the taxes.)

It takes a lot to leave me speechless -- as you're well aware, no doubt -- but you gotta understand before the Playboy Heaven and Hell Party and the Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD halftime show the most skin I had seen all week was the exposed shins of Marv Levy and Paul Tagliabue who both worked out on the exercise machines next to me at the Hilton. (Tags was no match … Marv may be just getting to his warm-down.)
Tags got another hefty workout on Monday back pedaling and dishing blame for the predictably lame, and so-called risqué, halftime show. Has anyone at the NFL watched MTV in the last decade? If hypocrisy burns calories then the commish won't need to hit the Stairmaster again anytime soon.

Let me get this straight: it's OK to accept millions of dollars to run ads for erection medication or one where a horse passes gas in a woman's face or yet another that features children cursing about a car but a partially exposed nipple throws everyone into a tizzy? Puhlease.

Really, if you think about it, the only person who was exposed during halftime was P. Diddy, who, it turns out, is a much better marathon runner than performer.

Outraged? Poor Eddie Money played the pre pre-game show live … from the Astrodome. They wouldn't even let the poor guy inside the real stadium. What's next for him, Sears openings? Meanwhile workers on the field went to great lengths to hide the Aerosmith logo on the pre-game show stage. Not because the band's appearance was a secret, but rather, I imagine they were afraid people would leave the stadium if they discovered AeroSupply would be playing yet another NFL gig.

Thankfully as time goes by it will be the actual game from Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD, the crowning moment of NFL parity, that will resonate. At least for some. "I don't really want to hear about being a part of the greatest Super Bowl ever," said Carolina safety Mike Minter. "Everybody in this locker room is devastated. The best Super Bowl ever? For me, this was the worst Super Bowl ever."

Imagine, then, how kicker John Kasay must feel after his horribly botched kickoff, which was twice as disturbing as anything MTV produced. Remember Scott Norwood's potential Super Bowl winning kick for Buffalo in 1991? Well, that was a heckuva kick that went 47 yards and missed just to the right. Kasay, meanwhile, shanked the biggest (and easiest) kick of his career when he topped the final kickoff Sunday, stopping the clock and handing the Patriots the ball (and the game) on the 40.

No, I haven't forgotten all the game-winners Kasay kicked this season. And you could even argue the Panthers would have been sitting at home watching the game on the, uh, boob tube, had it not been for his foot. But to gag on that kickoff is inexcusable. Shanks for the memories, John.

Kasay, to his credit, stood at his locker after the game and, with beads of sweat forming tiny rivers on his forehead, took every last question. With a clock above his head ticking time, Kasay raised his right hand and pinched his thumb and forefinger together to show just how much he missed by. "I wish it never would of happened," he whispered, "I missed it by a hair. That just happens sometimes. I missed it by that much -- a hair."

In the current era of parity, though, that's the difference in most games. Actually, Super Bowl XXXVIII-DD seemed more like two games -- a scoreless defensive battle for 26 minutes followed by a 61-point shootout in the final 34 -- sandwiched between a parade of nearly naked people prancing around midfield.

Here's where I think the game was won or lost: when early on Carolina uncharacteristically abandoned the run. Because by the time the Panthers and the gutsy Jake Delhomme were able to convert on offense, their defense was gassed from being on the field almost twice as long (38:58 to 21:02) as New England. After that, the Pats final drive seemed almost, well, inevitable.

Panther defenders say New England also had them on their heels the entire game with their uncanny ability to disguise plays. Every time the Panthers guessed, thought run, New England hit them with a play-action pass. And whenever Minter and guys like Ricky Manning Jr. cheated back anticipating pass, the Pats kept it on the ground where they ran it down the throat of the Panthers normally ferocious front four.

(As close as this game was the Panthers were beaten solidly at both their strengths-running the ball and up front on D.)

Forget Janet and P. Diddy for a moment, if anyone was exposed on Sunday it was Carolina's defensive end Julius Peppers, who has gone from DROY in 2002 to a flat-out liability against the run. Peppers, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2002, was shutout by New England tackle Tom Ashworth, a former practice squad player who repeatedly used Peppers' undisciplined up field momentum against him to create huge rushing lanes off tackle.
Ashworth is pretty typical of the entire Pats organization, perhaps the first one to master the current era of parity by deftly balancing free agency spending and the salary cap to create enough depth to endure even the bizarre rash of injuries they suffered this season.

Ya know, we've all talked about the death of the dynasty in the NFL, but I think it just took time for a team like the Pats to first master the new economics of the game.
Tom Brady, who has been Super Bowl MVP for half his career, is a former sixth-round pick. Ashworth? He was playing reserve tight end as late as 2002. Wideout David Givens? The guy who scored a touchdown and gashed the Cats late with huge grabs of 25 and 18 yards? He was the 253rd guy taken in the 2002 draft. Mike Vrabel? The normally anonymous linebacker had a MVP-worthy performance with two sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown catch.

After the game, Vrabel was exhausted, exhilarated and dumbfounded by his own success. Peppers, meanwhile, appeared fresh as a daisy and all smiles as he made his way under Reliant Stadium and out to the Panthers bus. Behind him, dressed like a banker and biting a hole through his lower lip, linebackers coach Sam Mills marched purposefully into the inky night where a far greater battle waited for him.

Workers plowed by with trays of uneaten food (not my fault, I ate at least a pound of free licorice during the festivities), the Patriots cheerleaders danced their way outside, fans screamed, a guy from German television grunted into his mic, and there, near the Panthers locker room, coach John Fox crossed paths with Pats safety Rodney Harrison whose broken right arm was already in a makeshift sling.

The two exhausted warriors paused for just a moment to acknowledge each other. Fox looked at Harrison and raised his eyebrows. The coach looked tired but satisfied, knowing, I think, that because his team and staff had left everything on the field he would not be haunted by this defeat.

Harrison glanced back and nodded.

And in a subtle, but poignant moment befitting perhaps the greatest battle in Super Bowl history, both men seemed to wince.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.