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Vinatieri the hero, Brady the MVP

HOUSTON -- Humdrum?

Hardly.

What was supposed to be a colossal bore turned into one of the
most exciting Super Bowls ever with a thrilling back-and-forth
final quarter that Adam Vinatieri finished off with his foot.

Tom Brady set up Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with 4 seconds
left to give the New England Patriots their second NFL championship
in three seasons with a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

Not only did Vinatieri win this one Sunday night, he did the
same thing two years ago, beating the St. Louis Rams on the final
play of the game.

"Nobody makes all of them. But if you've got to have one kick
with everything on the line, he's the one you want kicking it,"
New England coach Bill Belichick said. "It was an awesome kick. It
was a great kick. That's the game. That's what Adam's here for."

Most of the first half did live up to the predictions that two
defensive teams would make for a dull game. They were scoreless for
nearly 27 minutes, the slowest start in Super Bowl history, and
Vinatieri missed one field goal and another was blocked.

But that changed in the final 3 minutes of the first half and
again in the fourth quarter, when the teams combined for 37 points,
the most in any quarter in any Super Bowl.

The scoring never stopped.

The Patriots were ahead.

The Panthers were ahead.

The Patriots were ahead, then the Panthers tied it.

And then came the most reliable foot in football.

"You know you might have a chance at the end of the game to win
it," Vinatieri said.

"I looked up and it was going right down the middle."

It wouldn't have been possible without Brady. He finished
32-of-48 for 354 yards and three touchdowns. The 32 completions
were a Super Bowl record.

"To win this the way we did is incredible, unbelievable. A
great all-around game," he said.

"I don't know how I do it."

Brady was voted the game's MVP for the second time in three
seasons, although he did throw a second-half interception that
prevented New England from winning more easily.

Before the game, played in the city that is home to the nation's
space program, there was a tribute to NASA and the crew of the
shuttle Columbia, which broke up over Texas exactly one year ago.

And before the second-half kickoff, Justin Timberlake tore off
part of Janet Jackson's top, exposing her breast during the
halftime show, and New England linebacker Matt Chatham tackled a
streaker on the field.

It made fans wonder what was in store for the second half. The
teams didn't disappoint.

Carolina tied the game at 29 with its third fourth-quarter TD on
a 12-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left.
Then John Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds to give New England
field position at its own 40.

Brady moved the Patriots 37 yards in six plays, hitting Deion
Branch to set up Vinatieri's winning kick, which prevented the
Super Bowl from going into overtime for the first time ever. It
also gave New England its 15th straight victory.

"I felt like they fought so hard all the way that my role was
to help them hoist the trophy," Vinatieri said.

The Patriots led 14-10 at the half, and after a scoreless third
quarter, they made it 21-10 on the second play of the fourth on a
2-yard run by Antowain Smith. That capped an eight-play, 71-yard
drive featuring a 33-yard pass from Brady to tight end Daniel
Graham.

Carolina wasn't about to give up, though, scoring on DeShaun
Foster's 33-yard run on a six-play, 81-yard drive. But the 2-point
conversion pass was behind Muhsin Muhammad and it was 21-16. The
decision to go for 2 would come back to haunt coach John Fox.

The Patriots seemed ready to put the game away when they got the
ball back, but Brady made a rare mistake -- throwing an off-balance
pass that Reggie Howard intercepted in the end zone.

Two plays later, Delhomme found Muhammad behind the New England
defense for an 85-yard score, the longest play from scrimmage in
Super Bowl history, to give the Panthers a 22-21 lead with 6:53
left. Fox again went for the 2-point conversion and failed.

It was the first time New England trailed since Nov. 23. The
last time was also in Houston, when the Patriots rallied from a
20-13 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Texans 23-20 in
overtime on, what else, a field goal by Vinatieri.

The Panthers' lead didn't last long, either.

Brady came back with a TD pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel with
2:51 remaining, and Kevin Faulk ran in for the 2-point conversion
to give New England a 29-22 lead.

About two minutes later, Delhomme and Proehl hooked up to tie
the score, giving Vinatieri another chance to be a hero.

"I thought he kept us in the game," Fox said, referring to
Delhomme, who rebounded from a 1-of-9 start to throw for 323 yards.
"They kept battling back. Unfortunately they had the ball last."

After the scoring drought to open the game, the Patriots and
Panthers finally got going -- 24 points in the final 3:05 of the
first half.

The Patriots dominated that dormant period and finally took a
7-0 lead on the first of two 5-yard TD passes by Brady. The
quarterback found Branch after Vrabel sacked Delhomme, forcing a
fumble and giving New England the ball at the Carolina 20.

At that point, New England had outgained Carolina 125 yards to
minus-7, and Delhomme had been sacked three times.

But the Patriots' touchdown seemed to wake up the Panthers.
Delhomme led Carolina on a 95-yard drive, tied for second longest
in Super Bowl history, capping it with a 39-yard TD pass to Steve
Smith, who beat Tyrone Poole in single coverage. That tied the game
7-7 with 1:14 left in the half.

Brady came right back, hitting Branch for 52 yards behind Ricky
Manning Jr. to set up his second 5-yard TD pass, this time to David
Givens.

Carolina wasn't finished, either.

Vinatieri squibbed the kickoff and Kris Mangum returned it 12
yards to his own 47. With 12 seconds and a timeout left, the
Panthers crossed up the Patriots by handing the ball to Stephen
Davis, who rushed 21 yards to the New England 32.

After a timeout, Kasay kicked a 50-yard field goal to close the
half.

New England looked as if it might get off to a quick start,
shutting down the Panthers on their first possession, then moving
to the Carolina 13 after Troy Brown's 28-yard punt return.

But Vinatieri's 31-yard field-goal attempt was wide right. It
was only the third time he had missed indoors in 34 attempts, all
of them in Houston.

The Patriots continued to keep the Panthers backed up.

Carolina got its first first down with just over 2 minutes left
in the first quarter on a holding penalty on New England's Ty Law
but had to punt three plays later.

Carolina's defense held up its end -- Will Witherspoon ended
another Patriots threat by dumping Brown for a 10-yard loss on a
reverse to take New England out of field-goal range.

With just under 9 minutes left in the second quarter, the
Patriots reached the Carolina 38. Brady's third-down sneak was
barely stopped, then Antowain Smith barely got the 6 inches on
fourth down, a spot that was upheld on replay.

The Patriots reached the 18, but Vinatieri's 36-yard attempt was
blocked by Shane Burton.

Three plays later, Vrabel stripped Delhomme and Richard Seymour
recovered.

On third-and-7, Brady, the self-described "slowest quarterback
in the league," scrambled up the middle to the 5. On the next
play, he found Branch in the end zone for the game's first score.

But all of that was forgotten by the final quarter as New
England established its credentials as a mini-dynasty.

"I don't know about our legacy," said Charlie Weis, the team's
offensive coordinator. "But two titles in three years in the
environment of the NFL these days is quite an achievement."

For which the Patriots can thank Vinatieri.