HOUSTON – Glitz and glitter off the field, a sensational game on it. This may have been the best Super Bowl Sunday of them all.
Adam Vinatieri kicked a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to lift the New England Patriots (search) to a thrilling 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers (search) in the NFL's championship game.
These were supposed to be boring, defensive-minded teams, but they hardly played like it. This one felt more like a backyard game between the kids in the neighborhood, the kind in which the last team with the ball usually has the best chance to win.
"This was Ali-Frazier, man," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, recalling the classic heavyweight title fights of the 1970s. "That's how it felt out there. We hit them, they hit us. We hit them, they hit us."
After a relatively mundane start, the teams went back and forth, back and forth, scoring a total of 37 points over the final quarter. The big plays came from both likely and unlikely sources.
Vrabel, a linebacker playing offense for a play, caught a touchdown. Before that, Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad hooked up for an 85-yard pass, the longest in Super Bowl (search) history, to give the Panthers a brief 22-21 lead.
Vinatieri had surely been here before.
Two years ago, he kicked the game-winner with no time left in New England's 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams (search) to give the Patriots their first championship. By many accounts, that was the most exciting Super Bowl ever. Now, that's up for debate, something of a surprise considering these were two teams who prided themselves on defense, slugging it out and a relatively humdrum style of play.
"I think each game is different," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw three touchdowns and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. "To win this the way we did is incredible, unbelievable. A great all-around game."
Their dramatics gave the 85 million or so Americans who watched the game on TV — to say nothing of the 300 million Chinese — plenty to talk about around the watercooler on Monday.
Something more, that is, than the commercials, singers and stars that make the Super Bowl not just a game, but America's biggest unofficial holiday.
Beyonce and P. Diddy showed up and shared the stage with the two Super Bowl teams, who played in a gleaming new $450 million stadium with a retractable roof. Janet Jackson was there, too, and CBS apologized when another star, Justin Timberlake, tore off part of her top at the end of the halftime show and exposed her breast.
Shortly after that, a streaker came to the middle of the field and delayed the start of the second half. He was leveled by New England linebacker Matt Chatham, then hogtied and arrested by Houston police.
It was strange stuff, but it would wind up as barely a blip after this game.
Surely, the TV ratings will hold up. CBS knew the Super Bowl was the gold standard of the Nielsens, but when a game is as close and taut and exciting as this, the numbers get even better.
Those who watched it all saw New England win its 15th straight game, a single-season streak matched only by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 17-0.
The Patriots went ahead 21-10 early in the fourth quarter and the game looked routine. But the Panthers, their offense nearly dormant for three quarters, marched down for a touchdown to pull within 21-16, missing the 2-point try that would have made it a three-point game.
After getting the ball back, Delhomme saw Muhammad streaking free down the sideline and threw a beautiful, arcing pass that hit him in stride — six more points for a 22-21 lead with 6:53 left.
But the fun was just getting started. Brady calmly led the Patriots down for a go-ahead score, to Vrabel, the linebacker who lined up on offense, ran a short pattern and made a nice, two-handed catch with the grace of a receiver. New England made its 2-point conversion.
Carolina scored to tie it at 29, then after a short kickoff, it was Vinatieri's turn — again. He split the uprights, and more than made up for a pair of misses earlier in the game.
"It just came down to rhythm, and to win this thing and get the heck out of here," he said.
The finish and the exciting game were befitting of the party that surrounded it.
One survey showed Americans nearly double their consumption of cocktail franks during Super Bowl week, and spend $5 million more than normal on tortilla chips.
Most of it was consumed in front of the TV, where viewers got the best look at the commercials that have become the most anticipated moments of the Super Bowl. CBS sold 30-second spots for an average of $2.3 million.
There were ads for erectile dysfunction, one where a bear dresses up like a human and passes a hot check to buy some Pepsi, Cedric the Entertainer accidentally getting his legs waxed, and so on.
There also was a more serious side to the game.
In a pregame interview on CBS, President Bush wished his best to U.S. troops who were watching the big game, and also paid tribute to the seven astronauts who died when the Columbia space shuttle broke apart a year ago Sunday.
Security remained a key issue, with Houston's 5,400-person police force on full staffing, part of a 25-agency effort to protect the Super Bowl city for this, the third NFL title game since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A Continental Airlines flight from Washington to Houston was canceled due to security concerns, although a U.S. government official said the flight cancellation was not specifically connected to the Super Bowl.
Fans waited in long lines before going through any of the 90 metal detectors stationed around the stadium. Concrete barricades stretched for blocks and a no-fly zone was imposed over a seven-mile radius.
After this game, however, there was little doubt that all the trouble was worth it.
"I was having a heart attack out there," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It was a great spectator game."