PATRIOTS BY A FOOTNO MISTAKE ABOUT IT: BRADY GOLDEN

HOUSTON — And then Tom Brady made a mistake. This was not on his resume. This was not in his pregame feature. Mistakes were not part of the unflappable golden boy image that had been crafted by a league hungry for a new King Quarterback. But there it was. A mistake. A floating duck of a pass, lofted hastily to the end zone with tight end Christian Fauria in mind.

It should never have been thrown. It was released under pressure. The Patriots were only nine yards from the end zone, and you don’t make mistakes nine yards from the end zone. You throw it away. You take a sack. But instead, there was the ball, floating up there, as ethereal as a reputation, and it landed like a pop fly in the intercepting arms of Carolina’s Reggie Howard and just like that, the nail in the coffin was put back in the toolbox. The close-it-down touchdown had just evaporated.

Instead of a New England countdown to a title, the Carolina Panthers were seven minutes and a football field away from a lead and a possible victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It’s a lesson learned over and over in sports. Don’t give underdogs a chance. Don’t let them hang around. Don’t give them the oxygen that allows them to breathe, and if they can breathe, they can run, and if they can run, they can win.

So here was Carolina, just a few plays after Brady’s rare mistake, pulling out its own magic. Jake Delhomme, the Panthers’ unlikely quarterback, scrambled free, bought time, then heaved the ball downfield to Muhsin Muhammad, who caught it Willie Mays style, and left the defender behind, going all the way for the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, 85 yards.

Oh. And the lead, 22-21.

Brady looked at the clock. He exhaled. These are the moments that define a quarterback. Not his mistake, but the way he rebounds from it. Brady, for what it’s worth, looked about as worried as a guy who just deposited a lottery check.

He trotted out, and proceeded to craft a 68-yard drive that consisted of two big third-down completions, a 25-yard sideline strike, and a one-yard exclamation point for a touchdown that regained the lead with less than three minutes to go.

That would have been enough — to repolish the image, to regild the future, to once again prove that Brady’s pregame notices were legit. It would have been enough — in another Super Bowl.

But it wasn’t enough in this one.

Brady rings up another title

There was another superb quarterback in this Super Bowl. He didn’t start out that way. Jake Delhomme began the game looking like, well, a guy who started the year backing up Rodney Peete. He and the Panthers could barely breathe in the first quarter Sunday, much less gain any yardage. At one point, Delhomme was 1-for-9 for one yard. I’m not making that up. One yard?

But by the fourth quarter, all that was forgotten. Delhomme had become the cool Cajun he’d been labeled. And he marched his upstart offense right through the Patriots’ defense, with big passes to Muhammad and Ricky Proehl, who pulled in a short touchdown pass to tie the score, 29-29.

There were 68 seconds left in the game.

Which meant Brady had to be Brady one more time.

“You tell me what quarterback you would want in that situation,” Charlie Weis, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, would say.

It’s a fair question. Like a surfer knowing the ocean always gives you another wave, Brady cruised out and delivered strike after strike, beating the blitzes, hitting Troy Brown and Deion Branch and moving the Patriots just far enough to grab the finish that their fans, by now, have gotten used to: With four seconds left, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 41-yard field goal.

The Patriots won another Super Bowl.

And the Golden Boy — with three touchdowns, 32 completions and a second Super Bowl MVP award — was golden again.

“Tom’s a winner,” said his coach, Bill Belichick. “He does what he needs to do, and he does it as well as anybody.”

Who’s going to argue that now? Brady, by overcoming his own mistake, now has two Super Bowl rings. That’s as many as John Elway. More than Brett Favre.

And Brady is only 26.

A new-millennium Montana

Here’s a question. How did such a lousy Super Bowl turn into such a great one? Let’s be honest. For the first hour of this game, you were begging for the halftime show to start — and never end. Nobody had scored. Two field goals had been missed. There were penalties and drops and defensive wrestling. It was as exciting as watching a copy machine break.

But the same Super Bowl that set the record for longest 0-0 score also was the Super Bowl that saw 37 points scored in the fourth quarter, 19 by Carolina and 18 by New England. And from Brady’s ill-advised interception, this thing was guns-out, breathtaking sports. It had everything you could want — big catches from big receivers, step-up performances by the quarterbacks, and a redemption tale of immense proportions, with Vinatieri making up for two earlier mistakes and winning the game the way he won it two years ago.

Say this for the Panthers: They proved they belonged. They never got intimidated, and with Delhomme’s almost incomprehensible calm, they nearly pulled a huge upset. Delhomme (16-for-33, 323 yards) helped make this Super Bowl a battle of quarterbacks worthy of the showdown between legends Joe Montana and Dan Marino back in 1985.

But just as one man had to be the winning quarterback in that one, so too did one have to emerge victorious Sunday. Brady moves now into the realm of bona fide superstar. Expect his face to be everywhere. He leaps Favre, Vick, McNabb, all the rest. Super Bowls do that. Brady has become the first Joe Montana of the new millennium.

And the Patriots have become, in these days of parity, the closest thing we have to a dynasty. Two titles in three years, a young roster, and, believe it or not, four high draft picks this spring.

I know this much.

They won’t be drafting a quarterback.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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