It was the Patriots second championship in three years. It was a game of 868 total yards and 61 total points with 37 of them sprouting in the fourth quarter. It was the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake halftime "wardrobe malfunction" game. The Feb. 1, 2004 game was the most-watched Super Bowl at that time.
Carolina’s Rod Smart took the opening kickoff. He took the last kickoff, which was the game’s final play. Thus, Smart touched the ball first in Super Bowl 38 and he touched it last. In-between, a wild game unfolded, with Carolina tying it 29-29 with 1:08 remaining.
But Carolina booted the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. That placed the ball at New England’s 40-yard line. Tom Brady drove the Patriots 37 yards in six plays. Adam Vinatieri — who had drilled a 48-yard field goal against the then St. Louis Rams as time expired to win Super Bowl 36 — nailed a 41-yard game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining to sink Carolina. Smart managed a 20-yard return to the Carolina 22 to end it.
Vinatieri now kicks for the Indianapolis Colts. Smart is retired.
The Super Bowl’s return to Houston stirs memories for Vinatieri and Smart.
For both, they never fade.
"Houston is a great city for the Super Bowl. People in Texas love football. I get to play there every single year since the Texans are in our division. It’s an electric place to play.
"Two years earlier we were the Super Bowl underdogs but in this one we were the No.-1 seed and had won a lot of games. There was an expectation for us to win. It was a totally different dynamic.
I remember us practicing the first two days at Rice University but then Coach Belichick decided the field was too soft and we moved to the field where the Panthers were practicing. It meant a longer ride for us and a different schedule, but we adjusted.
The game started off like most Super Bowls do. A lot of ups and downs. We took the lead late and they came back. Their kicker, John Kasay, kicked the kickoff out of bounds. We knew we’d have good field position. There was a lot of déjà vu going on right there a couple of years later.
"I had missed a kick. We’d had a kick blocked. The interesting thing was our long snapper, Brian Kitchen, had cut, I think, his left hand in the pregame meal. I think he said he was buttering his bread with a steak knife. Earlier in the week he had asked the head coach to release him. He said he didn’t really want to do this. We had picked him up for the playoffs because we had an injury at the position. I know he was stressing out before that kick. I’m sure he was sweating bullets. But Brian’s snap at the end of the game was an absolutely perfect snap. To his credit, just perfect.
"I was over there on the sidelines practicing the kick between plays on that last drive. Out the corner of my eye, I’d look up at the board to see what was happening. You want to know the down and distance where you have to perform. Most of the guys were staying away from me like the plague. I’m just thinking, `Go on the field and put it between the posts.’”
"Sure, you’d rather be winning by 35 points. You don’t want it coming down to a field goal. But I’d much rather it come my way than the other kicker on the other side of the field. When he has that situation, you can’t do anything but watch. You have it, at least you can do something about it. I didn’t try to think of the circumstances. I’m thinking timing, ball in the air, on line, on target. I expected to make it. You don’t make them all. But I expect to.
"I remember all of the celebrating, all of the jumping up and down. After the final kickoff to Rod Smart that ended the game, Teddy Bruschi picked me up and slammed me down.
"I would say that the Super Bowl two years before put me on the map. The opportunity to make a game-winning Super Bowl kick changes your life. The second time you do it, it’s surreal. You go from being a kicker to becoming a household name. There was nowhere in North Attelboro, Mass., near the Patriots or in my hometown of Rapid City, SD, where people didn’t know you.
"I remember the postgame party. It was great. Snoop Dog was there. He was up there on the mic and he gave me a big shout out. And I thought to myself after that, `Well, I guess you made it.’”
"Houston is a huge city, a lot of people, a great place. It’s southern and I’m a southern guy, being from Florida. There are some beautiful people in Houston. It’s a nice setting for a Super Bowl. You want to go to the Big Show in a big place. Houston and Texas fit that.
"We beat the Eagles for the NFC championship. We kind of handled them. The game before against the Rams was a tough game, a double overtime game. I remember after the Eagles game the excitement we had. We were going to the Super Bowl. That’s what you think about as a professional athlete. Anytime you step on the field you are playing to win. It’s even greater when you get to the Super Bowl.
"It was an exciting and different atmosphere. One of the most hyped atmospheres you can be in. You could feel the energy in Houston that whole week. You were in the Big Show and you were in a big place.
"I took the opening kickoff. I took the kickoff on the last play of the game. So, I touched the ball first and last in this Super Bowl. The game started slow and then it got really good. It’s one of the best Super Bowls ever. It was smash mouth football. We were really knocking each other. We tied the game late and then we kicked the kickoff out of bounds. I’m thinking, `Man, what happened?’ That gave them the ball at their 40 yard line. I knew we couldn’t afford that mistake against such a good team. Brady moved it down the field. It came down to the kick by Vinatieri.
"Just knowing him and watching him and understanding the caliber of kicker he was, I knew in my mind he had already made it. Tom Brady was good. Vinatieri was flawless, especially on that kick. While he was getting ready to kick, we already had the kickoff team together, getting ready.
"The only thing in my mind on the last play was to return that kick for a touchdown. Take it to the house. It would have been a great thing for us and for me as one of the greatest plays in history. That’s not what happened. I take my hat off to the Patriots. They won it and they’ve been back. I respect their system. They get guys from all over, guys who don’t fit other teams’ offense or defense and in New England those same guys never miss a beat. When you win people start looking for stuff. They’ve had Deflategate. The tape issue. When you are champions people dig at you. I don’t know if those things are true and it’s not for me to figure out. But I respect them.
"Our goal was to win. We played as a team. On that day, the Patriots ended up being the better team. I was hurt. You look over there and see them celebrating, it was like a dagger in the heart. We had sportsmanship. We congratulated them. But it still hurts to this day.”