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A Texas steel-cage match to the finish

Former Globe columnist Michael Holley traveled with the Patriots with unprecedented access to coach Bill Belichick and the team during their success of recent years. Today the Globe offers readers the second of two excerpts from Holley's new book, "Patriot Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches, and the Players Who Built a Champion," published by William Morrow & Co., an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

So much had changed for Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the two years they had last played for a title. They were the subjects of pity and condescension then, a group of players expected to aspire to silver medals rather than the silver Lombardi Trophy. But they beat the St. Louis Rams, earned the trophy, and eventually lost the ability to reside on the margins. They were not the anonymous Patriots anymore. They were not the underdogs. They were winners of 14 games in a row, the second-longest streak in league history. There were some things about the Panthers that concerned Belichick. This was a group that had begun to identify with the Patriots of 2001. They believed they were among the toughest and most overlooked players in the league, players who had not received their proper due all season. They had won two playoff games on the road, including the NFC Championship Game in which they allowed just 3 points to the Philadelphia Eagles. The perception was that they were a conservative offense that relied on the legs of running back Stephen Davis. But Belichick, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis knew better. They respected coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Dan Henning, and special teams coach Scott O'Brien, who was on Belichick's staff in Cleveland.

They didn't have to be studied and decoded, as the Rams had been two years before. But they were difficult to prepare for because they took the Patriots' approach: They didn't make it easy for you; they made you plan for everything.

The Panthers had one of the most impressive defensive lines in football with Kris Jenkins, Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, and Mike Rucker. The foursome allowed Carolina to have defensive depth and range. The Panthers had four versions of Cover 2 and three versions of Cover 1. They blitzed corners, safeties, and linebackers. Sometimes they would sit in a zone and let the pressure come naturally from their line.

Tampa Bay had played the Panthers twice in the regular season and lost both times. Warren Sapp, a Buccaneers defensive tackle, believed he had seen enough of the Panthers to know what the difference in the game would be. During an interview with Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," Sapp said the Panthers' defensive line would overwhelm the men assigned to protect Tom Brady. He threw in a shot at Patriots guard Russ Hochstein, who would have to start because regular Damien Woody suffered a torn MCL in the divisional playoff win against Tennessee.

"I don't think it's a fair matchup," Sapp said. "I don't see how they're going to get it done because I think Russ Hochstein started for them in the AFC Championship Game and I've seen Russ Hochstein block, and he couldn't block either of you two fellas. Damien Woody was the best lineman they had, but Russ Hochstein, trust me, my friend, he couldn't block either of you two."

What Sapp didn't understand is that the Patriots had planned for this situation, specifically and generally. They knew when and where Carolina was going to try to shoot the gaps and they were ready to counter it. They would ask tight end Daniel Graham to stay in and help with the blocking on some plays. At other times, they were comfortable enough to have a running back pick up the blitz if it came from the weak side. They realized that the back might be, in certain situations, 5-foot-8-inch Kevin Faulk. The assignment wouldn't be as tough as expected for other reasons, too. One was Brady, who could quickly read defenses and change the protection if necessary. "Having Brady is like having Belichick on the field -- only Brady has a better arm," assistant coach Rob Ryan said. It was also a plus that all of the New England linemen were astute enough to make calls.

"Russ is like three-quarters of the guys in the line," Woody explained. "He doesn't have the greatest athletic skills, but he's an overachiever, he works hard, and he's smart. That's about it. I think Warren was jealous. We were in the Super Bowl and he was at home eating a sandwich."

Figuratively, that was true. Literally, Sapp was on the loose at Tuesday's Media Day, the annual breeding ground for the absurd. Sapp had a microphone, an NFL Network camera crew, a bodyguard, and curious members of the media following him around the Reliant Stadium field. He approached Hochstein and asked, "Aren't you glad I made you the center of attention?" Hochstein stared at Sapp and replied, "No more questions." Sapp would later joke about Hochstein moving as if both of his shoes were tied together.

Maybe it wasn't so overt during the season, but the Patriots were used to the skeptics. There was Sapp. There was Tennessee guard Zach Piller, who said he would be shocked if the Patriots won the title. Following the AFC Championship Game, when co-MVP Peyton Manning threw five interceptions, there were complaints that the Patriots may have stretched the rules with all of their contact at the line. The Patriots obviously won a lot, but the feeling was that they didn't win by large enough margins to snuff out the hope of their opponents.

"I don't want to say we didn't get any respect, because we did," Brady said. "I just don't think a lot of teams felt we were that good."

That was part of their motivation during the week. They had been reminded many times that they and the Panthers had accomplished the same thing. All they had done, on Wednesday of Super Bowl week, was to qualify for the game. Would they really be considered one of history's great teams if they had lost the Super Bowl? Who would be talking about the 14-game winning streak then? These were things they talked about when they went to the second level of the Inter-Continental and held their meetings in Champions Ballroom. . . .
They continued as they had in the past, reciting the tendencies of the Panthers. They knew then that they were not going to be switching to any sub defenses on third down, because they were determined to take away Stephen Davis as a runner. And the Panthers were not afraid to run Davis or DeShaun Foster on any down. The receivers had been told, over and over, that they were going to have to beat man coverage against the Carolina corners who liked to play physically. The defenders knew all about Jake Delhomme, the quarterback who may have been more effective when the original plays broke down and he was forced to freelance. He was a good freelancer, but the guys on defense had been told to look for the ball because Delhomme was also a fumbler. The Patriots were becoming experts on the Panthers, and Belichick thought the process was happening at the right time. With an extra week, he didn't want the team to be ready too soon and bored in the days just before the game. Now they could have the buildup they needed before they could pursue the second championship in the franchise's 44-season history.

They arrived at the stadium with the retractable roof, and the question at that time was simple: Open or closed? It was cloudy and cool -- for Houston -- so playing in 60-degree weather was going to be a game-time decision. The roof would be closed but, aesthetically, it wasn't going to matter. The stadium was beautiful. This was Texas's building, super-sized in every category from price -- $449 million -- to length of the video boards -- 360 feet. The tone would be set for both Belichick's pregame speech and the first several minutes of the game. Belichick had wanted to say something, anyway, after hearing the Panthers compared to the Patriots. He had asked his team all season not to give opponents any material to use against the Patriots. But he wasn't holding back now. He told the team that he was tired of hearing about the great Carolina defensive line, the great receivers, and the tough corners. He said he was tired of hearing that the Panthers were the '01 Patriots.

"This is going to sound weird since it was a lot of expletives," Woody said, "but it was touching. We saw a different side of him. We had never seen him that emotional before. He got me ready. I felt like going out there, strapping it up, and playing on one leg."

Woody left the playing to Hochstein and the rest of the Patriots, who decided to come out as a team. The Panthers decided to do the same thing. So there they both were, standing in Texas, minutes away from playing one of the oddest and most exciting of all the Super Bowls. They were about to walk the line between boxing and ballet, pounding each other on one series and floating by one another the next. "It was as physical a game as I have ever seen," said CBS sideline reporter Armen Keteyian. "It was an all-time Texas steel cage match."

All indications were that it would be a low-scoring game. It just made sense when you put the teams side by side. Neither one had a head coach or an offensive coordinator with a drop-back-and-let-it-fly mentality. The Panthers liked to run and the Patriots had allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season. The Patriots were going to try running as well, and there was that line that everyone had heard about.

So when the teams nearly went the first 27 minutes without scoring, it seemed to be turning into a game that was on its way to a 14-10 finish. Patriots receiver Troy Brown had his nose broken early and still went back in the game. Adam Vinatieri, with a portfolio of winning kicks, already had missed two field goals in the first half.

The first one he described as a simple miss, from 31 yards away. Shane Burton blocked the next attempt, which was a 36-yarder. Belichick didn't like this. He had said earlier that Scott O'Brien, the Carolina special teams coach, knew some of the Patriots specialists better than he did. O'Brien had coached long snapper Brian Kinchen and holder Ken Walter. With an injury to regular snapper Lonie Paxton and a fitful season of punting by Walter -- he had already been released and re-signed during the season -- part of the Patriots' kicking game was damaged.

Vinatieri wanted to be accepted as a football player, not the temperamental kicker-in-residence, so he didn't complain about a couple of things that were bothering him. He was hurting, with constant pain in his back. And with the injury to Paxton, his timing on his kicks was thrown off. He, Paxton, and Walter had practiced so much together that they never had to think about the technical aspects of their jobs. It was part of their muscle memory: straight snaps by Paxton, clean catches and quick placements by Walter, stress-free kicks by Vinatieri.

Finally, with just over five minutes left in the half, the Patriots got what they wanted and expected. Mike Vrabel, the defense's quick-witted scholar, sacked Delhomme at the Carolina 19. He jarred the ball loose and Richard Seymour recovered it. Four plays and two minutes later, Brady threw a short touchdown pass to Deion Branch.

Game over, some must have thought. It was that kind of game. Except it really wasn't what it appeared to be. Fans were going to love it for its unpredictability. Coaches were going to look back, reluctantly, and see all the mistakes that made it so dramatic. It was one of those mistakes that led to a tie with 74 seconds left in the half.

Patriots corner Tyrone Poole was supposed to jam Steve Smith at the line, and rookie safety Eugene Wilson was supposed to be helping with over the top coverage. Neither happened. Poole missed Smith at the line, and Wilson went to cover for Ty Law. Law had told him that he had an idea of what Carolina was trying to do, and he needed Wilson to get his back. Geno, as the rookie was called, didn't go where he was needed. So Poole was left alone on a 39-yard touchdown pass.

As halftime approached, the energy changed again. The Patriots were able to squeeze in a Brady to David Givens touchdown and the Panthers were able to get a 50-yard field goal from John Kasay -- set up by a 21-yard Davis run -- as time expired.

Twenty-four points in 3 minutes and 10 seconds. The Patriots led, 14-10, at halftime, and halftime was when pop singers introduced a new phrase to pop culture: wardrobe malfunction.

For those watching at home, it would have been understandable for the malfunction to be the buzz of the third quarter. Once again, the teams were trading field position but not points. It was a scoreless third.

When Antowain Smith scored seven seconds into the fourth to make it 21-10, it was time to bury the Panthers again. The Patriots weren't going to blow an 11-point lead, were they? They would in this game of sudden eruptions.

Foster had scored on a 33-yard run -- Carolina went for a 2-point conversion and failed -- and Brady had thrown an interception at the Carolina 2. With the Patriots still leading, 21-16, Wilson guessed wrong again and literally got hurt along the way. The Patriots defensive backs had been told that if Delhomme is looking in one direction, he would probably throw in that same direction. So on third and 10 from his 15, Delhomme looked right. Wilson followed his eyes and cheated right with him. The quarterback couldn't find anything. The play was officially broken. He began to freestyle, and Muhammad was smart enough to freestyle with him. The play wasn't meant to be a "Go" route, but it became one and Wilson was in no position to stop it. Eighty-five yards and a missed tackle later, the Panthers had the lead. Wilson was out of the game with a torn groin. Again, the Panthers went for 2 and failed. But they led, 22-21.

Brady had gained so much respect from his teammates by pointing out his own errors. His management style was not to berate following a mistake. He liked to mention that the next play was a good opportunity to correct any previous errors. That's what he did after his interception. He began at his 32, mixed five completions with three runs, and led the Patriots to the Carolina 1. That's when the comedian, Vrabel, checked in as an eligible receiver.

"Holla at your boy," Vrabel said in the huddle.

It was not a problem. All Vrabel had to do was hold on to the 1-yard pass, and he did. When Faulk took a direct snap and ran up the middle for the 2-point conversion, it was 29-22, New England. But there was too much time and not enough resistance in this fourth quarter. Wilson was down and the other safety, Rodney Harrison, would soon follow. Harrison broke his arm with just over two minutes left and remained in the game to make the following tackle. He was every bit the player New England expected when they signed him in March 2003, but he could not defy his body. His right arm was drooping, and it was impossible for him to stay in the game like that.

Delhomme went to work on the defense, a defense that was mottled by injuries and mistakes. With 73 seconds left, a misunderstanding -- Asante Samuel was playing zone when he should have been in man -- led to a 12-yard Ricky Proehl touchdown. It was Proehl who had scored the final St. Louis touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI to tie the score at 17. He was part of a different tie this time: Twenty-nine apiece.

"Well, you asked for it," Damon Huard said to Brady before walking away. He did ask for it. He had talked about it on the way to practice on Friday. But this was much deeper than Friday. This went back to Ann Arbor, when he believed he was entitled to run the two-minute drill perfectly. If he were going to be a quarterback, he would have to be skilled at this drill.

He was calm. He didn't know most of the 71,525 people here, but this didn't count as an anonymous crowd that could make him nervous. This was still football, and no matter how much importance was placed on this game, it was his game. And, oh, it really belonged to him after Kasay made the biggest mistake of his career. He kicked off, and the ball landed out of bounds. So now 26-year-old Tom Brady, who was already the MVP of one Super Bowl, was a couple of completions away from snatching another one. He was going to begin at his own 40 and have 68 seconds to perform.

Time for the drill. Weis's voice was in his helmet, and that's all he could hear. He was operating from the shotgun. He missed on his first pass, 0 Out Cluster 146 Z Option X Deep Return, and then connected with Brown for 13 yards to the Panthers' 47. He wasn't flustered when a 20-yard completion was taken away from him and Brown was called for offensive interference. OK. "Tommy," he heard Weis shout into the helmet. "Gun Trips Left 259 Max Squirrel X IN." He was going back to Brown, for 13, and back on the Carolina side of the field.

He'd take what he was given. Four yards to Graham and he was at the 40 with 14 seconds left. He took a timeout there, and still had one left. On third and three from the 40, he picked up 17 yards in five seconds. The play was Gun Trips Right 80 Rock OPEQ. Deion Branch caught the pass, and New England used its final timeout.

There were nine seconds left. Nine seconds left, and suddenly, it was as if a photographer was trying to recreate a family photo from a couple of years ago. No, you were standing over there the last time. Remember? Gil Santos was once again describing the scene to listeners in New England. Robert Kraft and his family were in their box. Some coaches were above the field and others were standing on the sideline. Just like the last time. Nine seconds left and, this time, the only difference was that they were more complete than they were down in New Orleans. They knew how it felt to win and then be pushed back to mediocrity. They were wise men now, capable of telling you about the joys and burdens of winning. Who among them would take this for granted? Not after what they had seen since February 2002: a new stadium, new teammates, dismissed veterans, frustrating games, loved ones gone too soon.

Vinatieri took the field stuffing his size 11s into a size 9 shoe. There would be no slippage that way. It was going to be foot on ball for ultimate accuracy. This attempt was going to be 7 yards shorter than his winning kick at the Superdome. There would be no talking this time as he walked on the field -- the line of scrimmage just on the nose of the 24 -- and began to create another piece for his collection. The snap was straight, the hold was clean, the kick relieved stress. It was high and good, once again, just like the last time.

Book excerpts
About the author
Michael Holley, co-host of "I, Max" on Fox Sports, is a former sports columnist for The Boston Globe.
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( Image provided by Mary Simmons of Harper Collins)
"Patriot Reign" is available on Amazon.com.

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