JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dynasties don't have to be perfect or pretty. They just have to win — like the New England Patriots.
The Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years with a dominant second half Sunday night, wearing down the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21.
It wasn't overpowering, and at times it was downright ugly. But it was more than enough to match the Dallas Cowboys' run of the 1990s and certify the Patriots of Bill Belichick (search) and Tom Brady (search) as the NFL's latest dynasty.
"To me this trophy belongs to these players," Belichick said. "They met all comers this year, a very challenging year. We're thrilled to win. These players played great all year, their best in the big games and they deserve it, they really deserve it."
With MVP Deion Branch (search) tying a Super Bowl record for receptions with 11, Brady efficiently running the offense and Rodney Harrison sparking a smothering defense, the Patriots (17-2) won their ninth successive postseason game. That ties the record of Vince Lombardi's Packers of the 1960s, and there's hardly any better company a team can keep.
The difference once again was an Adam Vinatieri field goal, this one a 22-yarder with 8:40 to go. New England won its other two Super Bowls by the margin of Vinatieri's last-second kicks.
This time, the Patriots sealed it with a stop.
Philadelphia (15-4) got the ball back at its 4 with 46 seconds remaining. It was hardly enough time and far too much territory to cover against such a formidable foe.
Harrison got his second interception with 9 seconds remaining to end it.
Playing before a sea of mostly green jerseys in the crowd of 78,125, the Patriots made sure Philadelphia would not get its first pro sports title since 1983. Indeed, it's been 45 years since the Eagles won the NFL crown. And even though they made it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 seasons — after three straight conference championship flops — their season still ended in disappointment.
Corey Dillon, a newcomer to the championship game, scored the go-ahead points on a 2-yard run early in the fourth period. And when Branch wasn't running free and catching passes, the Patriots flaunted their versatility by again using linebacker Mike Vrabel to find the end zone.
Vrabel has caught TD passes in two straight Super Bowls and has five TDs in as many career catches, not bad for a linebacker — or anyone else.
Brady wasn't as fluid as he was when he won the MVP awards in the 2002 and 2004 games, but he was on-target much of the time, finishing 23-for-33 for 236 yards and two TDs.
When the offense bogged down or turned over the ball, Harrison and his mates forced four turnovers, including a goal-line interception by the veteran safety. The Patriots also had four sacks, making Donovan McNabb look ordinary, even skittish at times.
And while Terrell Owens' return from a seven-week injury layoff was an individual success — he had nine catches for 122 yards — it was not nearly the star turn that Branch made.
Branch's 11 catches covered 133 yards as he victimized one of the league's best secondaries. He was most instrumental on the opening drive of the second half, which set the tone for New England's 57th victory in its last 74 games.
While New England handled frequent blitzes, Branch caught four passes for 71 yards on the series that ended with Vrabel's TD.
"We did a great job of adjusting during the game," Branch said. "It was physical; a lot of guys were bumped and bruised."
The Eagles showed resilience by responding with a 74-yard drive on which Brian Westbrook accounted for 39 yards, including the 10-yard score. McNabb whipped a pass over the middle between two defenders for the TD.
Still, as winners always do, the Patriots reasserted themselves, effectively using screen passes against a tiring defense. Even when Eagles defenders shouted to each other to watch for the screen, New England made it work, particularly on Kevin Faulk's 14-yarder that preceded Dillon's 2-yard run to make it 21-14.
Vinatieri hit his chip shot to make it 24-14. When the Eagles came back on Greg Lewis' 30-yard TD reception with 1:48 remaining, things got tight.
Not that it bothered the Patriots. Not that anything ever bothers these Patriots, who will lose offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and expect defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to become Cleveland's coach.
The victory gave New England its second team championship since the fall. This was hardly as dramatic as the long-suffering Red Sox winning the World Series. Still, Boston is the hub of champions.
Philadelphia's title drought goes on, but Owens certainly did his best to end it. The All-Pro receiver fulfilled his vow to start the Super Bowl, defying his doctor and playing with a metal plate and two screws in his right ankle.
"T.O. did a heck of a job," coach Andy Reid said. "I was proud of the effort and they battled, but we came up just short — too many turnovers — and against such a tough football team you can't do that."
Replay played a significant role on the first series. McNabb seemed to avoid a sack by Tedy Bruschi on third down, then dropped the ball when hit by Willie McGinest. New England recovered at the Philadelphia 34, but Reid challenged that McNabb's knee was down when hit by Bruschi.
Replay showed McNabb, indeed, was down, and the Eagles kept the ball, but punted.
Philly put together the first good drive late in the opening period, and Owens played a big part. He got open on a crossing pattern and gained 30 yards on third down, with a roughing penalty adding 9 yards, but a 16-yard sack by Mike Vrabel set back the Eagles.
Then McNabb threw a poor pass that Asante Samuel intercepted in the end zone, only to have it overturned because of illegal contact by linebacker Roman Phifer.
No matter. McNabb again threw a duck, which Harrison picked off at the 3.
But Philadelphia's defense didn't flinch, and the Eagles got the ball again at the New England 45 after a punt. Three plays later, another turnover: Randall Gay knocked the ball loose from L.J. Smith and Samuel recovered at the 38.
Once more, the defense was forced to hold — and did. When the Eagles got the ball back at their 19, they finally finished off a drive.
Todd Pinkston, often overshadowed by Owens, looked like his illustrious teammate on receptions of 17 and 40 yards. On the longer one, he soared high for yet another misthrow by McNabb and took it away from Gay.
Westbrook ran to the 6 and on third down, McNabb showed his maturity, hanging in the pocket and waiting for someone to get loose. That someone was Smith in the end zone for the game's first score with 9:55 left in the half.
It was the first time New England trailed this postseason.
The Patriots stayed behind after a rare mistake by Brady. Three plays after Belichick's challenge overruled a fumble by David Givens, Brady fumbled at the Philly 13 and Darwin Walker recovered New England's first giveaway of the postseason.
It didn't lead to anything for the Eagles, and after a 29-yard punt by Dirk Johnson, the Pats drove 37 yards to tie it at 7. Brady found Givens behind Lito Sheppard in the right corner of the end zone for a 4-yard score, and Givens mocked Owens' wing flap after the touchdown with 1:10 remaining.
This was only the second time a Super Bowl was tied at halftime. San Francisco and Cincinnati were 3-all in 1989.