HOUSTON - Adam Vinatieri turned what had been a nightmare of a game into another dream-like finish.
After missing his first two field-goal tries of the game yesterday, Vinatieri 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.
It was two Super Bowls ago when Vinatieri nailed a 48-yard field goal on the last play of the game to lift the Patriots to an upset victory over the Rams. For his career, Vinatieri is 15-for-20 on game-winning or tying field-goal attempts.
While the finish was memorable, the start was forgettable for Vinatieri.
He sliced a 31-yard kick wide left and then had 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.
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 a to 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.
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.
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-(minus-7) advantage in total offense.
Get off the field
Former Baltimore Colts linebacker Mike Curtis would have been proud.
The second-half kickoff of the Super Bowl was delayed after a man dressed as a referee ran onto the field, stripped down to a G-string and shoes, then started dancing at the 30-yard line.
New England linebacker Matt Chatham leveled the man who was later carried off the field by police. League spokesman Greg Aiello said the man was arrested and in the custody of Houston police.
In the late 1960s, Curtis cold-cocked a fan who ventured onto Memorial Stadium's field.
Fans patiently moved through the extremely tight security outside Reliant Stadium in the hours leading up to the Super Bowl.
Throngs gathered long before the gates opened. As they entered, their bags and jackets were searched, they were patted down and they moved through metal detectors.
"I'd rather be safe, you know," said Mike Schuster, who lives a mile from New England's home stadium in Foxboro, Mass. "Besides, it kind of tickled and I made a new friend."
Schuster and his friend, Rob Ekho of Los Angeles, were among the most conspicuous fans.
Schuster's head was shaved on the sides, where he had the Patriots' logo painted. The rest of his hair was spiked in New England's red, silver and blue. Ekho's shaved head was decorated in Patriots' colors.
"We meet every year for the Super Bowl," Schuster said. "I'm the designated drinker, he's the designated driver."
Carolina linebackers coach Sam Mills and linebacker Mark Fields were honorary captains, and were at midfield for the coin toss.
Both are fighting cancer. Mills, who has intestinal cancer, had a chemotherapy treatment on Wednesday before flying to Houston. Fields, who had Hodgkin's disease, has completed treatments and is on schedule to play next season.
The Panthers won the coin toss and elected to receive.
Open and shut case
The first fans to trickle in to Reliant Stadium saw blue sky with the retractable roof open.
But it closed for the pre-game warm-ups and performances by Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and Aerosmith.
The roof remained closed for the game because of the threat of rain.
It was the first Super Bowl played in a stadium with a retractable roof. No other NFL stadium has a retractable roof, but the one being constructed in Arizona will.
The streaker 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."
Many happy returns
Win or lose, it was a good day for Panthers kick returner Rod Smart.
As "He Hate Me" of the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws, he had a $45,000 salary for the entire 10-game season. The league folded after one year, and Smart moved on to the NFL and its biggest game.
No matter what happened in the Super Bowl, Smart was going to come out ahead financially. The winners received $68,000 - more than his full-season salary in the XFL. The losers got $36,500 each.
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 Associated Press contributed to this article.