HOUSTON - Adam Vinatieri turned what had been a nightmare of a game into another dreamlike finish.
After missing his first two field-goal tries of the game last night, the New England Patriots' kicker converted his second game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl in three years, drilling a 41-yard attempt with four seconds remaining to defeat the Carolina Panthers, 32-29.
"He's a pressure kicker," coach Bill Belichick said. "If you have a kick with everything on the line, he's the guy I want kicking it."
It was two Super Bowls ago when Vinatieri made a 48-yard field goal on the last play of the game to lift the Patriots to an upset victory over the St. Louis Rams. For his career, Vinatieri is 15-for-20 on game-winning or -tying field-goal attempts.
Although the finish was memorable, the start was forgettable for Vinatieri.
He hit a 31-yard kick wide right and then saw a 36-yarder blocked. They were his 11th and 12th failed attempts of the season. At halftime, he switched the shoe on his left foot, the one used to plant.
Vinatieri's first miss meant the Patriots failed to score on their opening drive for the first time in six games.
"It just came down to rhythm," Vinatieri said. "It's incredible. There's nothing better than this feeling right now."
Members of the Panthers' defense held no hard feelings against John Kasay, whose untimely out-of-bounds kickoff resulted in a penalty that gave the Patriots the ball on their 40 late in the fourth quarter. That put New England in excellent position to mount the game-winning drive.
Kasay shanked the kick after the Panthers tied the score at 29 with 1:08 left. The Patriots, with all three of their timeouts, only had to go 37 yards to set up Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal.
"As a defense, no matter where the defense gets the ball, we have a job to do," cornerback Reggie Howard said.
Said Brentson Buckner: "I could see if he kicked it and they got the ball at the [Panthers'] 10-yard line, but they got it on the 40. They got 60 yards to go to get points. John Kasay is the reason why we're here now."
Patriots' line holds
A patchwork New England offensive line created no holes for a heralded Panthers front four.
The Patriots, who had three original backups in their starting line, did not allow a sack in 48 pass attempts against tackles Buckner and Kris Jenkins and ends Michael Rucker and Julius Peppers.
The Panthers' line failed to even rattle quarterback Tom Brady.
"That's the most heat I've faced all year," said Brady, who was not sacked once in the postseason. "But we fended them off."
Rucker concurred with the effort.
"I feel like we got some good hits on him," Rucker said. "We didn't get any sacks, but sometimes a good hit is just as good. Obviously, we didn't get enough on him because he still got some passes off."
The Patriots' offensive line also was a force in the running game, which produced 127 yards on 35 carries.
Jenkins (Maryland) finished with three tackles.
Vrabel all over place
Brady may have won the Most Valuable Player award, but Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel had the most well-rounded effort.
He finished with six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. More surprisingly, he caught a 1-yard touchdown pass after lining up as an eligible receiver on New England's short-yardage package.
It was the first touchdown by a defensive player since the Chicago Bears' William "The Refrigerator" Perry scored in the 1986 Super Bowl.
"It's a long, long way from those days in Pittsburgh when I just covered kicks," Vrabel said.
Foster provides punch
DeShaun Foster's 33-yard touchdown run probably gave him the top two runs of the postseason.
Perhaps topping his 1-yard touchdown effort in which he broke tackles from several players in the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Foster provided his team with a big play it desperately needed in the fourth quarter last night.
Foster broke through two tackles before racing down the sideline and diving into the end zone with 12:48 left.
"The offensive line did a great job of blocking for me, and [receiver] Steve Smith blocked his man, then I was off to the races," Foster said. "It would have meant a lot more if we had won the game, but it was good to have a run like that."
Muhsin Muhammad's 85-yard touchdown catch gave the Panthers their first lead while putting the Patriots in an unfamiliar situation.
When Muhammad scored on Jake Delhomme's pass with 6:53 left - lifting the Panthers to a 22-21 lead with 6:53 left - it marked the first deficit for New England in eight games. The Patriots hadn't trailed since their last trip to Houston, a span of 488 minutes, 6 seconds.
Muhammad thinks his play won't be remembered long.
"If you score the game-winning touchdown and break a record like that in a victory, that is something that is great to cherish," he said. "But nobody is going to remember you scored the longest touchdown in history in a losing effort."
Defenses make point
The pre-game hype of two defensive-minded teams was borne out early. The Patriots and Panthers shut each other out for the first 26 minutes, 55 seconds - the longest drought in Super Bowl history.
New England and Carolina were ranked 12th and 15th in the NFL in scoring, respectively.
The teams then combined for 24 points in the final 3:05 of the first half.
Holding high ground
The field-position battle was dominated by New England early.
Of the 69 offensive plays in the first half, 53 were run in Carolina territory. In fact, after the Patriots went ahead 7-0 late in the second quarter, they held a 125 to minus-7 advantage in total offense.
A streaker who delayed the second-half kickoff wasn't the only unexpected exposure.
At the end of the halftime show, singer Justin Timberlake tore off part of Janet Jackson's top, exposing one of her breasts. The network quickly cut away from the shot, and did not mention the incident.
The Super Bowl halftime show, which also featured P. Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock, was produced by MTV.
"We were extremely disappointed by elements of the MTV-produced halftime show," said Joe Browne, NFL executive vice president. "They were totally inconsistent with assurances our office was given about the content of the show. It's unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime."
Reliant Stadium, the first retractable-roof stadium to play host to the Super Bowl, was closed over an hour before kickoff due to weather reports of possible rain and remained that way for the entirety of the game. ... The 37 combined points in the fourth quarter and the 649 combined net yards passing in the game both were Super Bowl records. ... The direct snap on which the Patriots' Kevin Faulk scored was the first two-point conversion of the Super Bowl. ... Brady's 52-yard connection with Deion Branch with 37 seconds left in the second quarter was his longest of this postseason. ... Ravens linebackers coach Mike Singletary, one of six Hall of Fame native Texans who participated in the coin flip, received one of the loudest ovations from the crowd. ... Steve Bisciotti, who will officially buy majority ownership of the Ravens from Art Modell in April, was seen sharing a private luxury box with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. ... The Super Bowl winners received $68,000 each. The losers got $36,500.