HOUSTON -- This team genuflects to nobody. Not if there's still time on the clock and a championship trophy waiting at the other end of the field. The Patriots did not take a knee, did not play for overtime when they shocked the Rams to win their first Super Bowl two years ago. They were not going to take a knee here last night, not with 68 seconds left to them, not with only a few stripes to cover to get Adam Vinatieri within range. And the Carolina Panthers knew it.
"Play to win," said Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, after Vinatieri's magic right foot had broken the Panthers' hearts. "That's what you do. You play to win. You don't play to go into overtime. They did what they needed to do."
There was less time on this final drive than there was against St. Louis, when quarterback Tom Brady had 1:30 to work with. But there also was less real estate to cover after New England got the ball on its 40 after Carolina had scored to tie the game at 29.
"We had 1:08 and three timeouts," said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. "That made the play calls a little easier, especially when [John Kasay's] kickoff went out of bounds. Instead of having to go 40 or 50 yards, we only had to go 30 to where we know Adam has a chance at it."
Problem was, after three plays and 24 seconds, the Patriots had moved only 3 yards, after a questionable offensive pass interference call on receiver Troy Brown brought the ball back to the 43 instead of putting it on the Panthers' 27.
Still, the Carolina front four hadn't been getting to Brady, who was sitting patiently in the shotgun as his underappreciated offensive line held off Julius Peppers and friends all night. Now, he calmly picked the Panthers' secondary apart.
Brady went right back to Brown on first and 20 for 13 yards, threading the ball between linebacker Will Witherspoon and cornerback Terry Cousin. "We were in a zone," said safety Mike Minter, "and they put the ball right in the perfect spot."
Twenty seconds left now, second and 7 with the ball on the Carolina 44 and Vinatieri warming up his leg on the sideline. Here was Brady throwing again, this time a 4-yarder to tight end Daniel Graham to the 40. A second timeout.
Now came the play, on third and 3, that went for Carolina's throat with 14 seconds left. "It was a combo route with Brown and Deion Branch," Weis said. And it caught the Panthers guessing wrong.
Would Brady look for Brown quickly on the shallow route for the first down and maybe a bit more? Or would he risk a longer throw that would put them within field goal range? "They bit on the shallow route," said Weis, "and Deion was open up top, and Brady hit him the way he always does."
Brady had been outgaming the Panthers for most of the evening. As soon as he saw their coverage, he figured a ball to Branch for 17 yards to the 23 was the bull's-eye call.
"I think we had the perfect play called for that coverage," Brady said. "We were really anticipating what they were going to do and Deion ran a great route. I just laid it up there for him and he made a great catch. And it gave us just enough time to call a timeout, and then Adam to run on the field."
Nine seconds left now, which is an eternity for this team. "If you ever give us any time," mused Vinatieri, "look out." The Panthers called a timeout to ice him, but they were merely crossing their fingers.
Vinatieri had only missed four of his 35 previous indoor attempts, but all of them had come inside Reliant Stadium, two of them last night. The first had missed just wide. The second had been blocked by massive defensive tackle Shane Burton.
But the Panthers, who'd seen the film clip of Vinatieri's previous Super Bowl winner a million times, weren't counting on him missing a second time. Not from 41 yards in the middle of the field.
"I wasn't thinking about him missing," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "I was thinking about us blocking it. But we just weren't able to get that one."
Not even close. Vinatieri drilled the ball right down Main Street and halfway to downtown, and the Patriots had won their second ring in three years. "It never gets old," Vinatieri declared. "It never, ever gets old."