This has to be one of the most underrated moments in Super Bowl history. The game itself has been rightfully hailed as one of the most exciting games ever watched on the big stage, and Vinatieri’s field goal at the end is a guaranteed highlight in any Super Bowl discussion.
However, it is often lost what happened in the fourth quarter.
The first three quarters of Super Bowl XXXVIII were not much to write home about. There was virtually no offense in the first quarter. In fact this game remained scoreless longer than any other Super Bowl.
The end of the first half did provide a lot of excitement, and fans expected the excitement to continue in the third quarter, but it was again a defensive struggle. Going into the fourth quarter the Patriots led the Panthers 14-10.
And then it began.
First, the Patriots, who had already begun moving the ball at the end of the third quarter, scored a touchdown and got some much-needed breathing room. They were ahead 21-10 and hoped to hold down the Panthers' offense.
For much of the game this had been a simple task, but the Panthers' dormant offense began to come to life. They moved the ball and answered with a touchdown of their own. They opted for the two point conversion to try to make it a field-goal game, but failed.
Ahead by five points, the Patriots got the ball back, and quarterback Tom Brady led his team down the field. He was shredding the Panthers' defense with ease, and guided his team deep into the red zone.
It appeared that the Patriots were going to finally take control of the game, and the game would finally start playing out like so many had predicted. Despite what was happening, no one could have predicted what happened next.
Brady, who rarely (if ever) turned the ball over in the postseason, was intercepted, and the Panthers were back in business. Jake Delhomme threw an 85-yard strike to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad for a touchdown. The pass was the longest score in Super Bowl history.
With the touchdown, Carolina went ahead, 22-21 but failed on the two point conversion attempt.
It would prove costly as Tom Brady and the Patriots refused to lose; the Pats had not lost since Week Four of the regular season. Brady led them back downfield and scored quickly on a trick-play pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Then came the direct snap on a two-point conversion that made the score 29-22. Fans were now on their feet. The action was incredible, and it wasn’t letting up.
The Panthers had a long way to go, and not much time to do it. They needed to tie the score quickly, and hope for overtime. A team that relied on the running game so often had to keep passing—and they did.
Right down the field they went, and they tied the score with a touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl. No one could believe it. The Panthers had answered the Patriots punch for punch, but unfortunately for the Panthers, there was over a minute left on the clock.
It was déjà vu for New England. Brady had led the game-winning drive against the Rams only two years earlier, and had the chance to do it again.
John Kasay’s kickoff went out of bounds and gave the Patriots good field position. The stage was set. The Patriots moved the ball flawlessly against a tired Panthers defense.
All was set for Vinatieri’s latest heroics. He lined up for another Super Bowl-winning kick. The crowd was cheering as the biggest game in the world hinged on his foot.
He lined up…He kicked…Right down the middle. Patriots win, 32-29.
The two teams combined for 37 points in the fourth quarter as the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years, writing another chapter in what would prove a dynasty.
However, what makes this fourth quarter great is what I will explain here.
You had the Cardiac Cats from Carolina. They were a team who had won seven games by seven points or fewer during the season. They routinely made their fans sweat game after game. They won on last-second touchdowns, last-second field goals and in wild overtimes.
Even the playoffs were no exception, as the Panthers barely slipped past the Rams in double overtime with a 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith.
The Super Bowl was no different when they took on an opponent that was supposed to destroy them, and they found themselves down over and over again.
They were unshaken as Delhomme led them downfield, as he did so many times that season, and tied the game to set them up for a familiar overtime. But what makes it great is that for once, that wasn’t enough. For once, their vaunted defense could not hold back a relentless offense.
The Cardiac Cats had run out of lives.
Another reason to remember that fourth quarter is the sheer number of points and how they did it. In one quarter we had 37 points, including five touchdowns, one of them the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. There was an interception, three two-point conversion attempts, and a game-winning field goal for only the third time in Super Bowl history.
The 37 points, by the way, were the most ever in the fourth quarter.
You had a quarterback for the Panthers who was virtually unknown before the season started, and in Week One, came off the bench to lead a 17-point comeback against the Jaguars, and take over the team for a magical season.
You had a team that only two seasons before that had been 1-15. They came out of nowhere, and came within a field goal of capping off one of the biggest rags-to-riches stories ever.
You had the Patriots, who were on a roll, winning fourteen in a row. Somehow, someway they overcame what could have been a storybook ending for the Panthers and made it their own.
Belichick and Brady showed their mettle by not buckling despite the resurgent Panthers' offense in the fourth quarter. They knew how many teams the Panthers came back against over the season, but they refused to be one of them.
Instead, they became champions, and both teams gave us something to remember.
Super Bowl XXXVIII was probably the most realistic view of life from two vastly different points of view. The Panthers remind us that the underdog doesn’t always win. The story is not always happy at the end. Sometimes, you keep fighting and fighting, but no matter how hard you try, you just cannot complete the final step.
The Patriots show us the side of life that we want to be familiar with. They showed us that it doesn’t matter what is happening around you, and that all you need is perseverence. They faced a valiant opponent and defeated it.
They faced down what could have been defeat a few times in the fourth quarter, but bounced back to continue their winning ways.
You had two teams that people could fall in love with. Two gallant opponents who both deserved the Lombardi trophy. Both teams, unlike so many other Super Bowl teams, played the game like they deserved to be there, and both fought like champions.
What makes this one memorable, what puts it on this list is that only one could become the victor.