Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: A Panthers season that no one wanted to see end

The Carolina bench looks on from the sidelines during the final moments of the New England Patriots’ 32-29 victory over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Feb. 1, 2004.
The Carolina bench looks on from the sidelines during the final moments of the New England Patriots’ 32-29 victory over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Feb. 1, 2004. KRT

Editor’s note: This column originally published on Feb. 2, 2004.

Here’s how it ends. With four seconds remaining, New England’s Adam Vinatieri lines up for a 41-yard field goal that you know he’s going to miss. He makes it. The Patriots avoid overtime and beat Carolina 32-29.

Nine cannons spray pink confetti into the air.

Four carts drive out of the tunnel at one end of the field. A box emblazoned with the Super Bowl XXXVIII logo, three portable stages and a red Cadillac roadster drive out of the other.

The New England Patriots hug, dance, laugh, cry and hoist their young children into the air. Music plays and fans scream and a security force as large as the army of a mid-sized country assumes its position to prevent the uninvited from getting in.

Carolina doesn’t try. After one of the best performances in team history, after turning what was supposed to be a lackluster Super Bowl into a glittering classic, the Panthers leave.

There are no interviews, consolation prizes or acknowledgment of their good work. They walk out of Reliant Stadium and the Super Bowl they helped make legendary with less fanfare than when they walk off their practice field in downtown Charlotte.

The end of the season is a surprise for which the Panthers had not prepared. They have been together through rookie camp and mini-camp and training camp, through four exhibitions and 16 regular season games and three playoff games and one Super Bowl.

They have come so far. After all they have done, the only place left to go is the locker room. For the first time in 55 days, the Panthers lost.

The end needs to be more gradual. Tell me there’s not time for one more Jake Delhomme pass, Steve Smith catch, DeShaun Foster run, Dan Morgan hit and Reggie Howard interception.

This was a Panthers team that shocked the world and thrilled the Carolinas. This was a team that helped, albeit briefly, unite a city and two states. They are the greatest sports story Charlotte has experienced and one of the best the Carolinas have.

Let’s take a vote. Who wants it to end? The Patriots, obviously, but who else?

The rest of the country does not. Thirty-seven Super Bowls have been played before this one, and only three were determined by three or fewer points.

This Super Bowl began like a Stanley Cup game, all hard hits and no points, and ended like the Daytona 500, all speed and daring.

The first points were not scored until 3 minutes, 5 seconds remained in the first half. And then, ladies and gentlemen, it was on. The Patriots scored again before the half ended and the Panthers scored twice before it ended.

Delhomme had come out tight; late in the second quarter, the Panthers had still lost more yards than they had gained. But Carolina’s defense so overwhelmed New England that the offense didn’t have to score.

The Panthers trailed 14-10 at the half and 14-10 after three quarters. Then came the fourth quarter, which is the greatest in Super Bowl history.

The teams accounted for 37 points. Here’s Jake rolling left and lofting a perfect pass down the sideline that Muhsin Muhammad runs beneath and plucks from the air. Muhammad shakes off safety Eugene Wilson so violently that Wilson ends up in a pile, and Muhammad scores.

The 85-yard touchdown is the longest in Super Bowl history. Imagine. Delhomme, the custodian of the conservative offense, and Muhammad, a tough but not so fleet receiver who early this season dropped as many passes as he caught, combine to do what nobody else who has played this game has.

Delhomme and Tom Brady, New England’s too-cool quarterback, each threw for more than 300 yards. Only two other quarterbacks in Super Bowl history have thrown for more than 300 in the same game, and one was Joe Montana and the other was Dan Marino.

Here’s what Delhomme did the final quarter. He threw 14 passes and completed 9 for two touchdowns and 211 yards. He was brilliant. His teammates were brilliant.

The defense was not brilliant. The Panthers’ defense finally wore down. So had New England’s.

Sunday was another beautiful night in what has been the most beautiful of seasons. Stuff the confetti back into the cannons. Send the stages back into the tunnel. Get the Cadillac off the field.

Don’t let this end.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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