Quarterback Jake Delhomme and the Panthers made a habit of coming from behind during the regular season, and it appeared they might be on their way again when the first-year starter connected with wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad on an 85-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with just under seven minutes left, and again when he connected with Ricky Proehl on a 12-yard game-tying strike with just over one minute remaining in the game. But John Kasay’s ensuing kickoff rolled out of bounds and the ball was spotted all the way out at the 40-yard line, setting up the Patriots game winning drive.
Despite two missed field goals by Vinatieri, the majority of the first half was little more than a battle for field position. With just over three minutes left in the first half, the game remained scoreless and the Panthers were held to minus-7 yards of total offense while quarterback Delhomme completed just one of his first nine passes for one yard.
But when the Patriots broke the ice on a five-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to wide receiver Deion Branch, they touched off an offensive explosion that netted a combined 24 points before the teams entered the locker room for the intermission.
After being harassed for much of the first quarter-and-a-half, Delhomme made the first mistake of the day when he coughed up the football on a sack by the Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. Defensive end Richard Seymour recovered the ball at the Panthers 19-yard line, setting up the Pats’ first score.
Carolina shifted to a hurry-up offense after the ensuing kickoff, and Delhomme seemed to find a rhythm as he capped off a 90-yard drive with a beautiful 39-yard pass that he dropped over the shoulder of wide receiver Steve Smith as he crossed the goal line.
The Patriots took over on offense with just over one minute remaining in the half, and three plays into their drive Brady connected with Branch again for a key 52-yard gain that helped set up a five-yard touchdown pass to David Givens. With 18 seconds on the clock, the Pats led 14-10.
Trying to run out the clock, New England decided to squib the kickoff, but it was picked up quickly by Panthers wide receiver Kris Mangum, who returned it to near midfield.
Carolina seemed content to run out the clock, and on their first play, they ran a draw to running back Steven Davis, who took it 21 yards to the Patriots 32-yard line where they quickly called a timeout.
Kicker John Kasay came in and connected on a 50-yard field goal attempt to cap off a wild three minutes and make the score heading into halftime, 14-10 in favor of the Pats.
Both teams found more success on offense in the second half, but the third quarter played out similar to the first quarter, as neither team could put any points on the board.
New England, benefiting from the terrific field position they enjoyed most of the game, finished the third quarter with a solid drive that started at their own 44-yard line. Two plays into the fourth quarter, running back Antowain Smith carried the ball in from two yards out.
Down 11 points with most of the fourth quarter remaining, Delhomme caught fire, going 3-for-5 for 53 yards before DeShaun Foster ripped off a 33-yard touchdown run that put the Panthers right back in the game. But in a decision that head coach John Fox might live to regret, Carolina attempted to cut the lead to three points, but the two-point conversion attempt failed.
New England answered with a long drive of their own, but on a third-and-goal from the Panthers nine, Brady was intercepted by Reggie Howard in the end zone. Three plays later, Delhomme connected with Muhammad on the 85-yarder that gave them their only lead of the game. Again they failed to convert the two-point attempt.
Delhomme finished the game 16-of-33 for 323 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort.
For the second time in two years, Tom Brady, who was 32-of-48 for 354 yards and three touchdowns, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.