HOUSTON – Snap down, head down, foot through and that was that. Adam Vinatieri raised a fist, then another and then he was mobbed. The NFL's most clutch kicker ever did it again for the league's most balanced and brotherly team.
Let the Boston accents holler up and down Houston's broad streets; the Patriots are Super once again.
The New England Patriots outlasted the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in a twisting, twisted Super Bowl decided with 4 seconds remaining courtesy of Vinatieri's foot, the late-game weapon that the Patriots have ridden to two world championships in three years.
In doing so he drove the ultimate team to its ultimate dream.
"It took 53 players, 17 coaches and the head coach [to show] us what the concept of teamwork is about," Patriots owner Bob Kraft said. "And when that's combined with perseverance and commitment, great things can happen."
That isn't just talk from Kraft; that's the Patriots' purpose. This is a group that lacks stars, doesn't get half the team photo in the Pro Bowl and isn't featured in soup commercials. They were doubted till the end – too boring, too basic – but they won their 15th consecutive game by riding a slew of big-moment performances from all corners of the roster.
"That game defined our team," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "Offense, defense, special teams. We play as a unit."
This was a wild and wonderful Super Bowl between two teams that America wasn't sold on. The beginning was a defensive stalemate, the end a back-and-forth car chase, two dueling offenses one-upping each other in a 37-point fourth quarter.
"It was a terrific game to watch," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It wasn't a great game to coach, though. I was having a heart attack out there."
Said Vrabel, "It's a blur, man. [I'm] going to have to watch it on TV to see what happened."
While Vinatieri's dead-center game-winner from 41 yards out provided the lasting memory ("Can we get a statue of him in downtown Boston?" linebacker Ted Johnson asked), there were, as there should be, about 53 heroes from New England.
There was quarterback Tom Brady, who won MVP honors, bouncing back from a crushing end zone interception to lead two clutch, late scoring drives. One was a touchdown that erased a 22-21 deficit, the other gave Vinatieri the chance to win it. A guy who supposedly can throw it only short finished with 354 yards and three touchdown passes.
"He's got what it takes," Johnson said. "Whatever it is, he's got it."
There was Vrabel, who not only anchored the Patriots defense with six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble but also caught an unlikely go-ahead touchdown pass with 2 minutes, 51 seconds remaining.
"It was fun," smiled Vrabel, who hadn't lined up at tight end since high school.
There was Deion Branch, the second-year wideout, who abused NFC championship game hero Ricky Manning Jr. for 10 receptions covering 143 yards, including a gutsy 17-yard snag with 9 seconds remaining to set up the game-winning boot.
And the list goes on, especially on offense. From the oft-maligned line (no sacks allowed), to the even more oft-maligned running game (a combined 127 yards) to a Patriots attack that picked itself up off the canvas and managed 18 fourth-quarter points.
"I've been hearing all playoffs how we are just a bunch of bums," offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said.
The bums are beautiful now because it all worked out. When the offense struggled early, the defense held Carolina to negative total yardage in the first 27 minutes. When the defense tired late, the offense won a shootout with a Panther team that showed courage to the end.
And no matter what anyone wants to say about this team and its skin-of-your-teeth winning style, it hasn't lost since September.
"You talk about the '72 Dolphins," Bruschi said of the 17-0 Miami team, the only one to win more consecutive games in one season than this year's Pats. "But here we are [winning] 15 in a row in an era where the talent is so good on every team."
If playing as a real team, no one player more valuable than the other, doesn't get your praises sung, no one seems to care now.
"Everyone says, 'Hey, they don't have any stars,'" said linebacker Willie McGinest, who had four tackles and a sack. "Everybody out there making plays is an all-star. We never separate ourselves. We're not a self-promoting, one-guy team. We play as a family and we win as a family."
"That's what makes you the best in the world."