The New England Patriots faced the Carolina Panthers in the 38th annual AFC-NFC World Championship Game in Houston, TX. For the Patriots, it was the second time in three years they had gone to the Superbowl, while it was the first such trip for the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots had erupted to a 14-2 regular season and were seven-point favorites while the Panthers were two years removed from a 1-15 record and had gone 11-5 and three straight playoff wins highlighted by a 70-yard touchdown in double-overtime to beat the St. Louis Rams.
Though the two teams were only infrequent opponants due to being in different conferences of the NFL, they carried a particularly bitter animosity into the game, as previous meetings between the two clubs had led to confrontations between players; in on-field warmups before the game the Panthers' Brentson Buckner got into an argument with Richard Seymour and Ted Washington of the Patriots that was broken up by an assistant to head referee Ed Hochuli, and on the opening kick a fight erupted between several players that was quickly broken up; later in the first quarter Michael Rucker of the Panthers crashed atop Troy Brown and his knee broke Brown's nose.
The Panthers proved unable to move the ball in the first quarter, but when the Patriots tried a 38-yard field goal it missed. The Patriots clamped down on Panthers running back Stephen Davis and snuffed out efforts by quarterback Jake Delhomme, who'd led a league-leading seven comeback wins in the season. Another Patriots field goal try in the second quarter was blocked by Shane Burton, but this went for naught as Mike Vrabel of the Patriots hammered Jake Delhomme with five minutes to go in the first half and forced a fumble recovered by the Patriots, by which time the Panthers had lost nine yards on a combined twenty offensive snaps.
A twelve-yard run by Tom Brady set up a touchdown toss to Deion Branch with 3:05 to go in the half. But now the Panthers found a rhythm on offense and Delhomme began killing the Patriots secondary with passing that led to a game-tying touchdown throw to Steve Smith with some seventy seconds left in the half. Undaunted, the Patriots renewed their attack with a 40-yard Brady throw to Branch that set up a David Givens touchdown catch. But the two teams that couldn't score until 3:05 to go in the half now couldn't stop scoring - in the final eighteen seconds a Patriots squib kick led to a John Kasey field goal and a 14-10 halftime score.
Ignoring an embarassing act of exposure during the Superbowl's halftime show, the two teams took to the field for two more quarters, though a professional streaker had to be tackled by stadium security with the help of Matt Chatham of the Patriots. The third quarter was another standoff; neither team moved the ball crisply and several passes were nearly intercepted. But as the third quarter ended the Patriots were on the march, and early in the fourth they scored on an Antowain Smith run.
The Panthers, however, had figured out how to attack the Patriots, and drove down the field with an aerial attack by Delhomme and a run into the endzone by DeShaun Foster for a 21-16 score following a missed two-point conversion. The Patriots now drove downfield, but the tiring Panthers defense attacked Brady enough that a third-down throw to the endzone was intercepted by Reggie Howard. Pinned at the Panthers own 15, however, Jake Delhomme moved in the pocket, launched a deep throw, and found Muhsin Muhammid well downfield ahead of cornerback Ty Law; the touchdown put the Panthers ahead 22-21 after another missed two-pointer.
By now the game had ceased to be an exercise in coaching and instead had become a race to score against the clock with less than six minutes remaining and the two teams once again unable to stop scoring. Tom Brady completed a gutsy third-down throw to Troy Brown at the 50, and the Patriots drove to the Panthers 3-yard line. Here defensive players Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel checked in on offense; Vrabel played tight end and caught a Brady touchdown toss. The Patriots went for two and a direct snap to running back Kevin Faulk nailed it.
But with three minutes left and down 29-22, the Panthers were not done, and now receiver Ricky Proehl, in his third Superbowl (first with the Panthers after two trips with the Rams) got into the act with clutch catches; with seventy seconds to go Proehl caught a touchdown from Delhomme, and the score was tied yet again, now at 29. But the ensuing kick proved devastating for the Panthers at it flew out of bounds and thus put the Patriots at their 40. This, though, went away as the Patriots lost yardage on an offensive pass interference call against Troy Brown, but Brady completed passes to Brown and then to Deion Branch for first downs with just seconds remaining and the Panthers determined to stop Adam Vinitiari's last-second field goal try.