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 before a sellout crowd 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 went to Delhomme or Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
But you know how it goes. The awards always go to the glamour boys. This wasn't a quarterback shootout, far from it. There was some bad coverage in both secondaries, the worst provided by Carolina cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. Three times Brady either overthrew or underthrew receivers in the end zone for what should have been easy touchdowns. He threw an interception late in the game that could have put the game away for New England, and also had two other passes close to being picked off.
Brady, though, was steady. Delhomme missed on eight of his first nine passes, but he finished strong, completing 16 of 33 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns. 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 over the middle, 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.
And then there was Brady. He doesn't have an overly strong arm, nor can he carry an offense alone. But he is in a system tailored to his abilities, and he runs it with great proficiency.
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.
He should have been. He put them in position to lose when Carolina followed up his interception with a three-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that put the Panthers ahead 22-21 with 6:53 remaining.
"It was just a bad read on my part," said Brady of the interception. "It was a bonehead play where they stepped in and took the ball."
But New England rebounded with an 11-play, 68-yard drive. Brady completed six passes in the drive, including receptions of 25 and 18 yards to receiver David Givens. Brady 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 Carolina kicker John Kasay's kickoff sailed out of bounds at the 15, giving New England possession at its own 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 head 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. The Panthers wanted to run, but they struggled. They stayed with the game plan for most of the game, but once they opened up, 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."
Delhomme punished the Patriots for broken coverages, but New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel also gave Delhomme a lot of credit.
"He ran the offense efficiently and had to make plays," said Crennel. "He had to score points and move around in the pocket, and he did that. We've seen him make plays in the passing game before, and he made some tonight. Once you get to this level, anything is possible."
The Patriots just had the ball last, and too much time.
"We been down before. We just tried to keep our poise," said Brady. "Jake threw the crap 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."