What’s the difference between a great football game and a really crappy football game? The answer is that the great game is close.
Or stated another way, Sunday’s match between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers was terrific entertainment and lousy football. In fact, you might say it was terrific entertainment because it was lousy football.
The game should have been a blowout. That it wasn’t was due to a colossal fluke. Or, rather, a string of colossal flukes that began in the first quarter and continued down through the final minute of the game. There has never been a Super Bowl—not even the infamous 1971 “Blunder Bowl” between Baltimore and Dallas—that featured so many bad plays, blown officials’ calls, and wretched coaching decisions.
Most of the game was intolerably boring, which was instantly forgotten in the mad rush of the fourth quarter. (Super Bowls are like big-budget action movies: Audiences tend to remember only what happens at the end.) The first and third quarters were devoid of action; all the good stuff in the second quarter was jammed into the final two minutes before the half.
Sifting through the stats of this ungodly mess is like picking one’s way through the wreck of a plane crash. The teams set a Super Bowl record with 20 penalties. New England kicker Adam Vinatieri got to be the hero only because he had made two horrible kicks earlier in the game, missing a chip shot 31-yarder in the first quarter and line-driving a 36-yarder into a lineman’s chest in the second.
Tom Brady, the game’s MVP, led a charge for the winning field goal in the final minute only because two possessions earlier he had ruined a splendid 64-yard drive that would have put the game away by lobbing a pass into the arms of Carolina’s Reggie Howard—who, suddenly forgetting he wasn’t playing on a freshman team, tried to run the ball out of the end zone. (He only made it back to the 10-yard line.) Earlier, in the third period, the Pats’ Troy Brown more than matched Howard’s density by fair-catching a punt at his own 10-yard line—it probably would have bounced into the end zone and brought the ball out to the 20.
After the Brady interception, Jake Delhomme threw a spectacular 85-yard TD pass to Muhsin Muhammad on third and 10 only because the most vaunted secondary in the NFL couldn’t get a man close enough to Muhammad to identify him in a police lineup.
What else did we see? Well, there was Ken Walter’s wretched punting, which included a decent 51-yarder and four others that averaged just over 30 yards. Everyone dumped on Carolina kicker John Kasay’s shank with 1:08 left in the game that gave New England field position for the winning field goal; this got Vinatieri off the hook not merely for his two missed field goals but for his own weak kick shortly before the end of the half, which let the Panthers get back in the game with a field goal of their own. And then, later in the first quarter, there was the inexplicable end-around to the Patriot’s Troy Brown on third and 3 from the Carolina 31 that lost 10 yards and took New England out of field-goal range.
All in all, the New England Patriots, touted as the most efficient and best-prepared team in pro football, took themselves out of four scoring opportunities through unforced errors. Scoring one of those times could have put the game away well before the end, and scoring any two of which could have put the game out of reach before the final 10 minutes.
The officials? Well, on the Panthers’ first possession of the second half, the line judge called an incomplete pass that the rest of the world could see was an obvious catch, fumble, and New England recovery. There was no reply challenge on the play due to a bullshit technical rule that everyone knows is ridiculous.
So, why was the game so much fun to watch? Because, in the end, after all this talk about defense winning Super Bowls and the importance of the kicking game and the key to victory being the run and the arguments over whether Bill Belichick or John Fox was the greatest defensive genius, both teams threw away the script and played spacier football than the teams in M*A*S*H. Both teams turned placekicking, punting, and kickoffs from a job into an adventure.
With the exception of one big run by the two teams reserve backs, the Patriots’ Kevin Faulk for 23 yards and the panthers DeShaun Foster for 33, neither team had any consistency on the ground. Aside from those two plays, both teams combined for 163rushing yards on 49 attempts, an average of only 3.3 yards a try. (When the game was over, commentators would marvel at “how well New England controlled the ball on the ground.” They didn’t “control the ball on the ground”; they got the rushing opportunities only because Tom Brady got them so many first downs through the air.)
After all the blather and hype about defense, the secondaries of both teams wandered around the field looking bewildered by nearly everything Brady and Delhomme threw at them. The game wasn’t fun because ofdefensive gurus Belichick and Fox but in spite of them.
The Super Bowl was redeemed by the final few minutes, but barely. If I was Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, I’d tell the NFL no more halftime shows until you get your act together.