Maybe Tom Brady really is Joe Montana in training, and maybe Adam Vinatieri really is the most clutch kicker in NFL history. The New England Patriots, for the second time in three years, not only won but won in the most glorious way possible: at the end.
They won when the pressure was almost unbearable. They won by coming from behind. They won with a quarterback, Brady, who now has two Super Bowl championships at age 26 and can spend the rest of his career throwing downfield at football history. They won with a kicker who had to be, despite all of his successes, a little shaken when he walked onto the field with nine seconds left having missed two shorter field goals already, two misses that had his team in peril.
What some of us suspect is that Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and his boys were a little bit smarter, too. Oh, that was a factor in New England's victory. On the Patriots' side, there was a touchdown pass to the starting outside linebacker and a two-point conversion that never should have been, on a direct snap to the backup running back. On the Panthers' side, there was a bad decision by Coach John Fox to go for two points with 12 minutes, 39 seconds remaining that led to a pair of unsuccessful two-point conversation attempts, and, fatally, a kickoff out-of-bounds with only a minute to go that gave New England the ball at their 40. "At that point," Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown said afterward, "we're thinking, 'We've got a chance.' " The Patriots understate everything and produce everything.
As Brown accurately observed, the Panthers had not allowed a kick return of any consequence all game. And with the ball spotted at the 40, all the Patriots had to do was go 30 yards or so with three timeouts and hand it to Vinatieri. "You can throw it to the middle of the field, throw it anywhere you want to throw it," Brown said.
Fox said kicker John Kasay was trying to bang it deep and simply hooked it, giving 15 or 20 yards to Brady, who plays so calmly it's as if he's listening to Nat King Cole in headphones while calling and then executing the plays. "He's so calm out there," Brown said. "I think it makes us all calm."
You're not supposed to go zip, zip, zip, kick against a defense as powerful as Carolina's, but that's what Brady and his teammates did. "And it was great to do it against the '85 Bears," Brown said, quite tongue-in-cheek, in about as hard a shot as a member of this team will take at an opponent. "We listened to those guys talk all week about how we were small and they were going to rough us up. But those guys were no Ty Law, I'll tell you that. We had 'em on their heels and did with them what we wanted to do, pretty much."
So the Patriots got their 30 yards -- 37 to be exact -- and prepared to win it. Brady-to-Vinatieri is money, like Roger Clemens handing it over in the ninth to Mariano Rivera.
The Patriots' 32-29 victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII was everything you'd want in a championship. It had great defense early, the surprise of a great kicker being harassed into a pair of missed field goals, a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks and drama at the very end. It's a stunning achievement, not just winning Sunday against a very worthy opponent, but winning 15 straight to close the season, the longest winning streak in NFL history other than the Dolphins' perfect 17-0 season 32 years ago. The Patriots did it by going through Tennessee and its co-MVP, Steve McNair, then the Indianapolis Colts and the other MVP, Peyton Manning, then through Carolina, which is probably more resourceful than most of us thought possible.
The game didn't start off like a classic, except to those of us who perversely live for defense and the tension of a 1-0 pitchers' duel.
The most notable move the first half came from my man Justin Timberlake, who committed an illegal touching penalty, definitely a 15-yarder. In case you were reaching for another cold one or went to the clicker for that pay-per-view lingerie special, you blew it. What you missed at the end of the halftime performance was Timberlake pulling Janet Jackson's blouse down low enough to reveal, well. Let's just say Janet lost half her top on international TV.
Anyway, when we were forced back to football, Brady did what he always does, which is manage the game, remain patient no matter what happens, and find a way to do the simplest things well. The Panthers covered Troy Brown and David Givens, so Brady started hooking up with Deion Branch, four times in the first quarter and eight times in the first half. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, after a bad start, got on a roll and turned into such a gunslinger that Fox changed his offense and smartly went with the guy with the hot hand.
Even so, Brady did get it done, with the help of an offensive line that didn't allow a sack and a running back, Antowain Smith, who ran the ball well enough (26 carries, 83 yards) to set up three play-action, touchdown passes. Fox, who said he didn't hesitate in going for the two-pointer with so much time left -- a pair of point-after kicks would have put the Patriots in a tougher position -- probably should have. Still, Brady was so good he probably would have taken his crew all the way down the field for a touchdown if one had been needed. Sixty-eight seconds is a lot of time. Hell, 38 seconds seems to be enough time for The Golden Boy.
Look, I'm not in favor of comparing anybody who's 26 with Montana. For guys in their forties like I am, Montana and Elway are gods, and we're simply reluctant to put some young pup in that company.
So is teammate Troy Brown, who has some history of the NFL. But Brown said afterward, "Tom's 26 years old with two Super Bowl rings and a lot of time left in front of him. I know a lot of things happen in this league and it's difficult to say anything is for certain with free agency and players moving around like they do. But if he stays healthy, he's got young receivers, a young offensive line to protect him."
Brown didn't finish his sentence, but he didn't have to. He was thinking something big. It's hard to not think big thoughts when a man has this much success this early and seems absolutely unfazed about it, and is happy to spread the credit around to teammates who make less money and get relatively little glory. Two Super Bowls in three years isn't to be confused with a dynasty, but it's not the end either. It's probably the beginning, which ought to delight people searching for greatness, but scare the other 31 teams half out of their wits.