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No overcoming fumble beginnings


HOUSTON - From the time he took over for starting quarterback Rodney Peete in the season opener, to a division title and to back-to-back playoff road victories, Jake Delhomme has provided the steady hand for the Carolina Panthers.

Though he rarely dazzled, Delhomme also never seemed to rattle.

But both scenarios occurred in the Panthers' 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots last night at Reliant Stadium.

Delhomme was horrible for much of the early part of the Super Bowl, then rebounded in what would have been one of the greatest turnarounds in championship game history.

At one point in the first half, Delhomme was 1-for-9 with 1 yard passing. He had lost a fumble on a sack that led to a Patriots touchdown and failed to lead his team to a first down without a penalty in the Panthers' first six drives.

In the end, though, Delhomme was 16 of 33 for 323 yards and three touchdowns.

As spectacular as some of his throws were in the second half - including an 85-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad that is the longest in Super Bowl history - Delhomme bristled at the idea that it was the game of his life.

"I hope not," he said. "I don't want to lose in the game of my life."

Delhomme might have lost, but it was far from his fault. The last three Panthers drives ended in touchdowns (81, 90 and 80 yards).

In those drives, Delhomme was 12 of 16 for 213 yards, with the touchdown to Muhammad and a 12-yard strike to Ricky Proehl that tied the score at 29 with 1:08 left.

"I was lucky enough to have receivers make unbelievable plays for me tonight," Delhomme said.

Delhomme hit the Patriots with just about every route combination possible, and a defense that had intercepted Indianapolis Colts quarterback and NFL co-Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning four times looked confused, if not overmatched.

"We give those guys a lot of respect and a lot of credit," Patriots cornerback Ty Law said. "They gave us all they've got. They are a great football team, played well, and they are well-disciplined."

The first 25 or so minutes, however, told a different story. Delhomme, without much of a running game, provided even less of a passing game, and the Panthers punted on their first five possessions.

Delhomme and the offense hit rock bottom on the sixth. Holding onto the ball far too long on third-and-12 from the Panthers' 25, Delhomme was hit by linebacker Mike Vrabel from behind and fumbled, leading to the Patriots' first touchdown.

What was going through his mind then?

"Just be patient," Delhomme said. "They are going to win some. They are a very good defense, no doubt. That's what we were talking about on the sidelines."

Then Delhomme, with the game seemingly in the Patriots' control, exceeded the steady quarterback he had been all season and put up MVP-like numbers.

He led a 95-yard touchdown drive (completing four of six attempts) in the 1 minute, 58 seconds before halftime. His last throw was a perfect over-the-shoulder pass from 39 yards to Steve Smith over the outstretched hands of Tyrone Poole, making it 7-7.

"I think Jake Delhomme has a lot of heart," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He's going to get better and better and has a bright future in this league. I think he showed that tonight."

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