Here we are. Finally! We have reached number one in our countdown of the Top Ten Moments in Carolina Panthers History. It only took 22 days to do this. There’s just something about wearing the same t-shirt for four days that makes a guy lazy.
There is a tremendous potential here for a few complaints for the choice at number one. Some might point out that the team lost the game. But there is no bigger stage in sports and rarely is there ever a game played filled with more drama. Even more rare, is the long list of great plays and players from this game.
Without further ado…
#1. Super Bowl XXXVIII – Carolina Panthers versus New England Patriots, February 2, 2004 (Houston – Reliant Stadium)
The Carolina Panthers were not supposed to be here. They had finished the season 11-5 and claimed the NFC South title but had to play three playoff games, two on the road. They were the ultimate underdog playing against a New England team that was on its way to building a dynasty having won the Super Bowl two years before.
But something happened on the way to the blowout that so many were expecting – the Carolina Panthers showed up. These Cardiac Cats, led by Jake Delhomme, one of the most intriguing stories in years and a comeback player of the year candidate in Stephen Davis.
The defense was no slouch either. They had held down the Cowboys, the high-powered Rams and the Eagles to reach this moment.
The first quarter was marked by big plays that would prevent any scoring.
Despite an early drive, the Patriots would experience a rarity – a missed 31-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. For the first time in six games, the Patriots failed to score on their first possession of the game.
Things were even tougher for the Carolina offense as they gained only three yards on their first three possessions. The Patriots defense was harrassing Jake Delhomme who started just 1 of 9. They were also successful in shutting down Stephen Davis and the running game.
Again, the Patriots were able to mount another drive but Vinatieri was still unable to put them on the scoreboard. Shane Burton rose up from the middle of the defensive line to get his right hand on the kick and the game remained scoreless.
Then with just over five minutes to go before the half, Mike Vrabel sacked Delhomme forcing a fumble which New England recovered at the Panthers’ 20 yard line. It didn’t take long for them to capitalize as Tom Brady hit Deion Branch from 5 yards out four plays later to take a 7-0 lead.
Something must have clicked on the Carolina sidelines when the score went up on the board because the offense woke up from their slumber as they put together a beautiful drive with only 3:10 to go in the half. Taking possession at his own five yard line, Delhomme would guide his team downfield.
With passes eating up chunks of real estate, the Panthers moved the ball to the Patriots 39 where Delhomme would hit Steve Smith with a perfectly thrown pass down the left sideline for the score. Suddenly, the game was tied at seven.
Carolina had left just over a minute on the clock – it was too much. Tom Brady would hit Branch again deep down the middle of the field highlighting a furious drive that would move them 72 yards in only 36 seconds. The drive ended on a five-yard pass to David Givens for a 14-7 lead.
Amazingly, the half still wasn’t over as Stephen Davis was able to break a long run and the Panthers were able to position themselves for a 50-yard field goal by John Kasay to take the game to the half with New England leading 14-10.
The second half started much like the first quarter had started as the defenses assumed control – at least until late in the period when the Patriots offense again awoke to move the ball to the Carolina four yard line. After a two-yard penalty was assessed, Antowain Smith took the ball to the house giving New England a 21-10 lead.
Jake wasn’t done. Far from it. On the ensuing Carolina possession, he would take his team the distance on a 6-play, 83-yard drive that was capped off with a beautiful run by DeShaun Foster from 33 yards out. Foster took the handoff, started up the middle, cut left, split defenders, cut left again breaking a tackle, then broke free down the left sideline. He would leave his feet and fly the remaining 9 feet, ball outstretched, parallel to the ground for the score.
Coach John Fox elected to attempt a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 3. It didn’t work. Jake Delhomme’s pass down the middle intended for Muhsin Muhammad fell incomplete and the score remained 21-16 in New England’s favor.
An answer followed from Tom Brady. He drove his team from his own 27 in nine plays to the Carolina 9-yard line. But Reggie Howard would make a crucial interception two yards deep in the end zone and return it to the ten yard line. A five-yard penalty on the Patriots would set the stage for one of the single prettiest plays in Carolina Panthers history.
Two incomplete passes would start the next possession for Delhomme and the Panthers but on third down, Jake lofted a perfect spiral down the left sideline, hitting Muhsin Muhammad at the New England 33 in stride. He would race the distance to complete a Super Bowl-record 85-yard touchdown pass. Suddenly, the underdog Panthers had the lead 22-21 desite a second failed two-point conversion.
Something special was hapening but everyone watching had to know that Tom Brady wasn’t finished yet. They were right.
The Patriots would begin at their own 32. They moved the ball effectively, taking eleven plays, including only two running plays, to re-take the lead. It was a one-yard pass to Mike Vrabel followed by a rush by Kevin Faulk for the two-point conversion that made the score 29-22 in favor of the Pats.
Jake Delhomme got the ball back with only 2:51 remaining. He didn’t disappoint moving the team from his own 37 to the New England 12 in 6 plays. The drive was capped by a 12-yard pass to Ricky Proehl and the game was tied at 29.
Still, how many were looking up at the game clock? Did everyone watching ask the same question: Are those 68 seconds left on the clock too much time?
Panthers fans would not receive the answer they wanted.
The ensuing kickoff by John Kasay went out of bounds down the right sideline. Now, not only did Brady have time but he also had great field position at his own 40.
He would begin the winning drive with back to back 13-yard passes to Troy Brown. Then a four-yard pass to Daniel Graham and a 17-yard pass to Deion Branch. Suddenly the ball was at the Carolina 23 setting up Adam Vinatieri for a 41-yard field goal. This time, he would be dead on and down the center with only 4 ticks left on the clock.
Carolina could muster little on the final kickoff and the game was over as New England had prevailed 32-29.
It was a loss on the biggest stage that professional sports can provide but the Panthers valient effort saw many outstanding individual performances.
Mike Minter had broken his foot in the third quarter yet he played on totalling 14 tackles; Jake Delhomme put up 323 yards passing while throwing 3 TDs; Muhsin Muhammad had 4 catches for 140 yards and 1 TD; Dan Morgan had a game-high 18 tackles while Will Witherspoon added 13 of his own.
The day belonged to New England but the Carolina Panthers gained the world’s respect in defeat. It was a bittersweet end to an amazing season.