HOUSTON -- Mike Vrabel always jokes with his teammates. His joke this week was the he'd get a game ball on defense and on offense during Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Well, the joke was on the Carolina Panthers. Vrabel recorded two sacks and a forced fumble for the Patriots' defense. That's not a surprise; Vrabel led the Patriots with 9½ sacks this season.
The biggest surprise came in the fourth quarter when he caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady that could have been the game-winner in the Patriots' 32-29 victory. Vrabel lined up as a tight end on about a half-dozen plays in formations in which defensive end Richard Seymour was the fullback.
The touchdown gave the Patriots a 29-22 lead and a magic moment in Super Bowl history.
"Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham are going to be mad at me because I'm always telling them that I'm an option on that play," Vrabel said. "They don't like it. But (offensive coordinator) Charlie Weis called a great play."
Vrabel was really Brady's third option on that play -- called 136 X Cross Z Flag. Vrabel lined up on the left side. Though most of the time he blocks on the play, this time he was the third option as a receiver.
"Mike isn't the first read on that play, but I felt he would be the one who would have a chance to catch the ball," Weis said.
After all, who's going to worry about a linebacker who hasn't played in the tight end position since high school?
Vrabel acknowledged that Seymour was the first read on the play.
"My job is to come across and try to get underneath the linebacker," Vrabel said. "As I got off the line of scrimmage, someone grabbed the back of my jersey. I had to run them off."
"On that play, you are always going to have a guy trailing you, but catching the ball isn't something I worry about," Vrabel said. "I've got decent hands. If I can get to it, I can catch it."
Vrabel got to it for the touchdown that appeared to have won the game. Jake Delhomme, however, led Carolina back on a game-tying, 80-yard drive.
Still, Vrabel was Delhomme's worst nightmare all night long. The Patriots found different ways to apply pressure. For the most part, the 3-4 defense took away the running plays. Stephen Davis had only 49 yards on 13 carries. DeShaun Foster broke free for a 33-yard touchdown and had two other carries for 12 yards.
Normally, the Panthers don't win when Delhomme throws more than the team runs. Delhomme threw 33 times, while the Panthers ran only 16. Still, Vrabel was a problem because of his pass rush.
"That's going to be good trivia question," Vrabel said of being the team's sack leader. "I think we can put a little pressure on the quarterback when we have to. Obviously, playing next to Richard Seymour, that gives me an edge."
Vrabel rushed from the right side even though he believes he's better rushing form the left side. Of course, who would have thought he would be catching a touchdown pass.
"It's incredible," Vrabel said. "It's been a long, long way from those days in Pittsburgh (with the Steelers) when I just covered kicks."
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.