HOUSTON -- With just 1:04 remaining here Sunday evening and the game tied at 29-29, the five members of the New England Patriots starting offensive line unit huddled along the sideline, waiting anxiously to get back into action for the last opportunity at avoiding the first overtime contest in Super Bowl history.
Right before the Patriots offense jogged back onto the field, just after Carolina's John Kasay had committed a grievous faux pas by knocking the kickoff out of bounds, right tackle Tom Ashworth exhorted his line mates to give quarterback Tom Brady a shot to do what he typically does in the hurry-up drill.
"I just said, 'Keep people away from him, like we've been doing, and he'll go and win it for us,' " said Ashworth, who rendered Panthers left defensive end Julius Peppers all but invisible most of the night. "So we went out and did our job. And Tom went out and did what he usually does in those situations. That's how it's supposed to work, right?"
In the Pats' 32-29 victory, a white-knuckler that will justifiably take its place as one of the best Super Bowl games ever played, that is precisely how it worked. Give Brady, the guy with the Hollywood good looks and the cover boy smile, much credit for understanding how to follow a well-written script.
The most notable performer on a championship team that might possess one of the lowest collective profiles of any two-time Super Bowl winner, Brady demonstrated again why, if he doesn't yet rate a spot among the great quarterbacks in NFL history, he certainly ranks with the top clutch players in title game annals.
For the second time in three seasons, Brady engineered a late-game sequence that set up a winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri. For the second time, his Pats teammates expected no less from the four-year veteran, with linebacker Ted Johnson suggesting there might soon be a statue of the quarterback erected in downtown Boston.
On the final drive, operating almost exclusively from the shotgun and out of a "spread" look offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had eschewed during much of the opening three quarters, Brady connected on four of five attempts for 47 yards. The four completions came after he opened the series by missing an open wide receiver, Deion Branch, on a short out route to the left side.
He didn't miss again.
After that misfire, Brady was about as accurate as a quarterback can be, and he overcame a nullified 20-yard completion and the dubious pass interference penalty against wideout Troy Brown that accompanied it. The Super Bowl's most valuable player for a second time, Brady suddenly got into the rhythm that eluded him earlier, and found Brown for 13 yards on a pivot route, then for another 13 yards on a slant. A connection with tight end Daniel Graham added four yards and then came the biggest throw, a 17-yarder to Deion Branch on a comeback route along the right sideline, where Brady took advantage of a frequent target, Panthers corner Ricky Manning Jr., who slipped coming out of his break.
That final pass, which established a new Super Bowl record for completions (32), left the ball at the Carolina 23-yard line.
Enter the usually reliable Vinatieri, who had missed two earlier attempts, sailing a kick wide right from 31 yards on New England's initial possession of Super Bowl XXXVIII, and having a 36-yarder blocked in the second quarter. And exit the gritty Panthers, who most observers assumed could not hang with the Patriots in a shootout-type game, but who actually led favored New England with 6:53 remaining.
"To be honest, if you're a quarterback at any level, those are the kinds of moments you live for," said Brady, who threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns, suffered a costly interception, and had an efficiency rating of 100.5. "It's like basketball. You want the ball in your hand for the last shot. I knew, after they scored (the tying touchdown) that we had enough time, because we've been running our two-minute drill so well. Our offense is so well-designed for those situations. You just try to follow the blueprint, make your reads, make the throws."
It is a tad more difficult than that, of course, but Brady made things look easy during the game's most critical sequence. There is a reason New England players possess so much confidence in Brady, who has never lost a postseason start, and it was on display again in a raucous Patriots locker room.
On display in the New England huddle, several teammates reiterated, was the trademark cool of Brady, who seems at his best as a leader in tough situations. Tight end Christian Fauria noted during the season that women want to be with Brady and that men want to be like him. Teammates weren't about to address the issue of Brady's much-ballyhooed off-field life, but agreed late Sunday that they wouldn't mind having the self-confidence he exudes.
"Put your money on the guy, because he's going to put the ball on the money, man," said Branch, who had 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. "In fact, let's just call him 'The Money Man,' because that's what he is. People question a lot of things about him. But don't ever question his toughness or his ability when things are on the line."
Brady connected with six different receivers on Sunday, one of only seven times all year he didn't have at least seven different pass-catchers. But he clearly focused on getting the ball outside, particularly to Branch and Brown (who combined for 18 catches and 219 yards), and on taking advantage of some easy targets. It seemed Brady drew a mental bull's eye on the rookie Manning and on strong safety Mike Minter.
He threw ruthlessly at Manning, who entered the game with four postseason pickoffs, all night. And on one of the game's big plays, a 52-yard completion to Branch near the end of the first half, he froze Minter in his tracks with a half-roll to his left. The Pats installed a lot of half-roll action, with much of it to Brady's right, and a few "dash" series plays to get him away from the Carolina pass rush.
The result: Although he was occasionally pressured, Brady wasn't sacked at all, and he characteristically had time to scan the field. Even if his accuracy waned early, he made plays when he had to, and threw the ball well into tight spaces. Two of his touchdown passes came off play-action fakes to tailback Antowain Smith, who once again came up big in a big game by rushing for 83 yards. The third came on a pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel, who lined up as a tight end, on a play installed here this week.
Termed "136 X-cross/Z-flag" in the New England playbook, the pass opened up wide for Vrabel and Brady delivered the ball softly for a guy not accustomed to having his hands on the football. Then again, he delivered it that way for most of the Patriots receivers and, in so doing, killed the Panthers softly.
Brady became the fourth player in Super Bowl history, all of them quarterbacks, to win multiple most valuable player honors.
"Give them credit, because they played really well, and they made it scary," Brady said. "Every time we got close to being in a comfort zone, they put the pressure back on us, and our offense had to respond. But give credit to (Charlie Weis), too, for making a lot of great calls."
About the only mystery in the game is why Weis and coach Bill Belichick did not spread the field more in the first half. The suspicion is that they felt the offensive line might not be able to handle the Carolina front four. But notable is that the makeshift line unit, shy three players who opened the season as starters, did not surrender a single sack in New England's three postseason victories.
Clearly, the Carolina secondary, undoubtedly the team's most suspect unit, could not cover the superior New England receivers. That was no more obvious than on the final possession of the evening.
Said the jubilant Ashworth, who limited Peppers to just two tackles, and helped lead the effort of a much-maligned offensive line: "I'll put my faith in Brady and our receivers any time. And tonight you saw why."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.