HOUSTON - On one side of the field, Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme sat on the bench in silence. Tears couldn't be that far away. On the other was New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, celebrating his team's second Super Bowl championship in three years.
In a Super Bowl that proved to be one of the most exciting and memorable, both Delhomme and Brady provided some great moments in the Patriots' 32-29 win over the Panthers last night at Reliant Stadium.
Brady won the Most Valuable Player award, but it could have easily gone to Patriots running back Antowain Smith or linebacker Mike Vrabel, or the entire New England offensive line. Or it could have gone to Delhomme or Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
But you know how it goes. The awards always go to the glamour boys.
This was hardly a quarterback shootout in the first half, but in the second half, the quarterbacks started chucking the ball all over the field.
The entire nation got a chance to witness some of the worst coverages in a Super Bowl game. The worst performer was Carolina cornerback Ricky Manning. He was fortunate that three times Brady either overthrew or underthrew receivers in the end zone for what should have been easy touchdowns. Brady threw an interception late in the game that could have put the game away for New England, and he also had two other passes close to being picked off.
Brady, though, was steady. Delhomme was inconsistent, several times underthrowing receivers in the red zone. But he finished strong, completing 16 of 33 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns, and he was extremely effective on the long ball. Brady was 32 of 48 for 354 yards and three touchdowns.
You have to admire Delhomme. Carolina's offense is so one-dimensional with its run-oriented attack. Brady, at least, has some balance, and the Patriots kept the Panthers off their game most of the night.
Smith rushed for 83 yards on 26 carries. He wasn't spectacular, but the Panthers had to respect him. All three of Brady's touchdown passes were off play-action fakes, two short ones over the middle, and one slightly off the perimeter on the right side for a 1-yard touchdown to Vrabel with 2:51 left in the game.
The Patriots also did a good job of moving Brady, either on semi-rollouts or sprintouts to avoid the Panthers' pass rush. Carolina didn't get a sack last night, partly from protection, and partly because of New England's short passing attack.
Brady doesn't have an overly strong arm, and he can't carry an offense alone. He is being compared to Joe Montana because both play in systems suited to their talents. Montana had Jerry Rice and John Taylor. Brady has a dink-and-dunk offense, and he runs it with great efficiency.
After having a pass picked off by cornerback Reggie Howard at the Carolina 2-yard line with 7:48 left in the game and New England ahead 21-16, Brady was determined to bring the Patriots back.
And he should have been. He had put them into position to lose when Carolina followed his interception with a three-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that put the Panthers ahead 22-21 with 6:53 remaining.
"I was trying to get the ball over the guy's head and I threw a pick," Brady said. "I thought I had him, and I just couldn't get it up high enough. He made a big play on it, and it is one of those things that you wish you had back."
But New England rebounded with an 11-play, 68-yard drive. Brady completed six passes in the drive. He finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Vrabel, who lined up on the left at tight end, and then came across the middle.
Brady got some help on the game-winning drive when the Panthers' John Kasay sent his kickoff out of bounds at the 15, giving New England possession at its 40 with 1:08 left in the game.
Brady completed passes of 20, 13 and 17 yards to help set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning, 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining.
"If you're picking one guy, which one would you pick to run the two-minute offense?" said Charlie Weis, the Patriots' offensive coordinator.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said: "Tom is moving up. I don't know where he fits in with quarterbacks around the league, but he has to be up there. Tom is a winner. That's all you can ask a quarterback to do."
Delhomme almost came out a big winner. Once the Panthers opened up the offense, Delhomme made the most of every opportunity.
"It came down to several plays, and fortunately for them, they got the ball last," said Carolina coach John Fox. "Jake is young, and he is going to be around for a while. We think we have something special here."
The Patriots simply got the ball last with too much time.
"We've been down before. We just tried to keep our poise," Brady said. "Jake threw the heck out of the ball on our defense, which doesn't happen very often. It's incredible to do it the way we did it. We fought back. It was just an exciting day for both teams."