Their upset win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI turned the Patriots and especially their quarterback into superstars. But while the team shined bright off the field, it failed to do the same on it. Due to this, the defending Super Bowl champions finished the 2002 season with a 9-7 record – and losing a playoff spot on a tie breaker.
Heading into 2003, changes were needed and the most notable came at the safety position. In March, the Patriots signed veteran free agent Rodney Harrison, in September – five days before the season opener – they released team captain Lawyer Milloy. The move was widely questioned and, coupled with a 2-2 start, led to speculation about the players’ relationship with their coach.
However, the Patriots bounced back and went on to win their final 12 regular season games to earn another playoff berth. The team then proceeded to eliminate the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts before traveling to Houston to take on the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers.
Super Bowl XXXVIII: Carolina Panthers vs. New England Patriots
Date: February 1, 2004
Stadium: Reliant Stadium, Houston TX
Final Score: Carolina Panthers 29, New England Patriots 32
Houston’s Reliant Stadium – which nowadays is named NRG Stadium – saw the two best teams in the NFL deliver a game for the ages. Early on, it did not look like that would be the case: Almost the entire first half was dominated by defense. The Patriots still had a chance to take the lead on their first drive but Adam Vinatieri missed 31-yard field goal attempt. This was the closest either team came to scoring in a first quarter that saw six punts and four 3-and-outs.
The slugfest continued in the second quarter. After punting on the first possession of the quarter, and subsequently forcing another 3-and-out, the Patriots were again in prime position to take the lead. And once again Vinatieri missed a field goal attempt, as his 36-yard try was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Three plays later, though, linebacker Mike Vrabel sacked Panthers’ quarterback Jake Delhomme, who fumbled the ball. It was recovered by Richard Seymour, who set up New England’s offense with a first down at the Carolina 20-yard line.
Four plays after the takeaway, Tom Brady connected with wide receiver Deion Branch to give the game its first points with 3:10 to go in the first half. Carolina had amassed -8 yards of offense when the Patriots took the lead. Yet, the NFC Champion began driving down the field, tying the game with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme to Steve Smith.
New England responded with a touchdown of its own: The Patriots drove 78 yards in 36 seconds, capped by Brady’s second touchdown pass of the day. This time, Houston-born David Givens was on the receiving end of it.
The first half was still not over, though. After a Vinatieri squib kick, which was returned to the Carolina 47-yard line, the Panthers’ Steven Davis ran for a 21-yard gain to set up John Kasay’s 50-yard field goal. Thus, the Patriots entered halftime up 14-10. After a scoreless first 27 minutes, the game saw 24 points being scored within a three-minute span.
The second half began like the first one: Neither team was able to move the ball effectively. At the end of a scoreless third quarter, however, the Patriots found themselves deep in Carolina territory. Two plays into the final period, Antowain Smith rushed for a touchdown to give New England a 21-10 lead – and kick off some of the most spectacular 15 minutes in NFL history.
The game, which had started as a defensive battle, turned into a shootout. The Panthers, down 11, answered the Patriots’ touchdown with an 81-yard, two minute drive that ended with a 33-yard DeShaun Foster touchdown run. A two-point conversion failed; the score remained 21-16.
New England’s offense responded with another long series, going from its own 27 to the Carolina 9-yard line in nine plays and four-and-a-half minutes. However, the team once again failed to end a drive on the scoreboard as a Brady pass intended for tight end Christian Fauria was intercepted in the end zone.
To make matters worse, the Panthers were able to take the lead three plays later. Jake Delhomme connected with wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad on a 85-yard touchdown pass to give head coach John Fox’s team a 22-21 lead (another two-point attempt failed).
Once again, the Patriots answered with a touchdown: After a four-minute drive, Tom Brady found linebacker/tight end Mike Vrabel in the endzone with 2:55 left in regulation. A two-point run by Kevin Faulk was successful and the Patriots were up 29-22.
The game, however, was still far from over. The Panthers drove 80 yards in 1:30 to tie the game at 29. Then came the kickoff. John Kasay kicked the football out of bounds setting up the Patriots on their own 40-yard line with 1:08 left in the game. Brady then completed four of five pass attempts to set up a 41-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal attempt. When the pressure was highest, Vinatieri delivered and the Patriots went ahead 32-29 with only nine seconds left in the game.
The Panthers failed to get back into field goal range and New England won its second Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl XXXVIII had all one could have hoped for: great play and great drama. While the game started slow, both teams combined to still gain 868 yards of offense (Patriots 481, Panthers 387). In the end, New England made just a few plays more than its opponent and thus secured a second World Championship in three years.