Panthers QB couldn't make one last comeback
HOUSTON -- Jake Delhomme stood on the sideline, grim-faced and gripping his helmet. He wanted so desperately to get back on the field and have one last chance to win the Super Bowl.
And when it didn't happen, he punished himself by watching the winners celebrate.
As he'd done all season, Delhomme led the Carolina Panthers to a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback, driving for touchdowns the last three times they had the ball. The second put them ahead with 6:53 left and the last one tied it with 1:08 to play.
Then Adam Vinatieri kicked a 41-yard field goal with 4 seconds left to give New England a 32-29 lead. Delhomme stood at the edge of the sideline, hoping to get back on the field, but time expired on the kickoff return.
The Cajun comeback kid was out of chances.
"It's just the worst feeling in the world," he said.
Hands on his hips and biting his lip, his eyes became red-rimmed as he watched the Patriots hugging and dancing amid falling confetti. He didn't snap out of it until New England running back Kevin Faulk came by for a quick embrace.
"I just wanted to watch the celebration and let it hurt even more," Delhomme said. "In two days when I am going to be complaining and whining, I am just going to keep on working and try to get back here and be on the other side of the rope."
Of all the thoughts flooding Delhomme's mind, there had to be a sense of what might've been. After all, he'd missed 2-point conversion passes after the first two of Carolina's three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
He also had a slow start, completing only one of his first nine passes for just 1 yard. Through seven drives, the offense had minus-7 yards and its only first down came via penalty. Delhomme also was sacked three times in that span, losing a fumble on one to set up New England's first touchdown.
But Delhomme rebounded to finish 16-of-33 for 323 yards with three TDs, including the longest pass in Super Bowl history (85-yard TD to Muhsin Muhammad for the go-ahead score) and a 39-yarder to Steve Smith to cap second-longest drive (95 yards).
"I thought he kept us in the game and they kept battling back," said Carolina coach John Fox, who in two years took a 1-15 team to the verge of a championship. "Unfortunately, they had the ball last. If we had had a little more time, it might have been different."
Until Sunday, the Panthers were 7-0 in games decided by three points or fewer. In eight of their 14 wins, Delhomme led them to victory with second-half comebacks.
Carolina also tied an NFL record with three overtime wins, then won in double overtime in the second round of the playoffs.
What they wouldn't have done for one more extra period this time.
"We played our heart out and just came up short at the end," Smith said. "There is nothing accomplished when you don't win. It's all or nothing and right now we have nothing."
Through three quarters, Delhomme's best spurt came in the final two minutes of the first half. That was good enough to get Carolina with in 14-10.
The Panthers were down 21-10 at the start of the fourth, when Delhomme began doing his thing.
He took them 81 yards in six plays, with DeShaun Foster running the final 33 to make it 21-16. That's when Delhomme missed his first 2-point try, throwing behind Muhammad, who was open in the end zone.
Starting the next drive at his 10, Delhomme hit Muhammad deep and he stiff-armed his way into the end zone for a 22-21 lead. They went for 2 again to try going up by a field goal. Instead, Delhomme threw wide of Kevin Dyson in the end zone.
A touchdown and 2-point play by New England made it 29-22, but Delhomme answered with an 80-yard, seven-play drive. Ricky Proehl's 12-yard touchdown catch and an extra-point kick tied it. Then Vinatieri's kick un-tied it.
"Whenever your team scores, you've got to be able to stop their momentum," Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker said. "We didn't do that. That's the hardest part about it."
Rucker said he also was disappointed not to have won for all the people who were counting on them, including team owner Jerry Richardson, who was Fox's surprise guest to speak to the team Saturday night.
If only Delhomme had another chance. That's certainly what Carolina players and fans will wonder about all offseason.
To them, they didn't lose. Time just ran out.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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