Before the 2015 season, the Carolina Panthers made just one Super Bowl appearance in their history. That came in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the New England Patriots on Feb. 1, 2004, a game that was memorable both on and off the field.
For most fans, the actual game was overshadowed by the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" incident at the halftime show, but this ended up being one of the better Super Bowls of the decade. Thrilling action, legendary stars in the middle of their primes, the outcome still in doubt late in the fourth quarter -- this game had it all.
Setting the stage
In 2003, the Panthers were less than a decade old, established as part of the 1995 expansion. But they were still struggling for national relevance. They made the NFC Championship in their second season, but until 2003 that was their only playoff appearance. Things hit rock bottom with a 1-15 season in 2001.
Enter John Fox. Replacing George Seifert as the head coach, Fox quickly turned things around, getting a 7-9 record in 2002 and turning Jake Delhomme into a viable franchise quarterback. The wide receiver corps showed plenty of promise -- Steve Smith was in the middle of his evolution from pure special-teamer to one of his generation's most dangerous receivers, while Muhsin Muhammad was a steady veteran presence. Carolina used the 2002 No. 2 draft pick on Julius Peppers, who would anchor the defense for years.
The pieces all came together in 2003, when the Panthers earned an 11-5 record and NFC South title. They went on to beat the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs.
The Patriots were just starting to figure out how good they could be. Sure, Tom Brady had already been a Super Bowl MVP, but at this point he wasn't quite the Touchdown Tom everyone remembers today. They won their Super Bowl in the 2001 season, but went 9-7 and missed the playoffs the next year. Was that Super Bowl win a fluke, a one-time historic upset? Or were Brady, Bill Belichick and company a dynasty waiting to happen?
They answered that question pretty emphatically in the regular season, going 14-2 and steamrolling the AFC East (that would be a running theme for the rest of the decade). The defense was possibly the best in the league, with Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi all in the middle of their primes. Brady had an average year by his standards, but he didn't have to do too much with the defense balling.
The Patriots squeezed by the Tennessee Titans and then took down longtime nemesis Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship. That game, a 24-14 win for New England, is generally considered one of the best playoff games of the 2000s.
The Big Game
Super Bowl XXXVIII was a matchup of two defensive-minded teams that were really good at not letting opposing offenses do things. The first quarter ended scoreless. There wasn't even any scoring in the first 12 minutes of the second quarter. But then a funny thing happened -- Brady drew first blood with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch, Delhomme fired back with a 39-yard score to Smith, and on the next drive, Brady hooked up with David Givens. The Panthers got the ball for the last time of the half and John Kasay hit a 50-yard field goal.
Just like that, it was 14-10 Patriots and we all went into the halftime show with good vibes.
After that flurry of scoring at the end of the first half, it was business as usual in the third quarter, with neither team scoring. All hell broke loose in the final frame. After Brady engineered a 10-play drive that started at his own 29-yard line, he handed the ball to Antowain Smith, who punched it into the end zone from 2 yards away. That gave New England the 21-10 lead and the game threatened to get out of hand late.
But Delhomme started his comeback. After hitting Smith with two big passes on the next drive, DeShaun Foster broke off a 33-yard touchdown run. Brady threw an interception on his next drive and Carolina took advantage quickly -- Delhomme hit Muhammad, who made the play of his life, sprinting 85 yards down the sidelines into the end zone. With 7:06 left, the Panthers had their first lead of the game, but they missed the two-point conversion.
Brady had yet another one of his patented "Touchdown Tom" playoff drives, marching 68 yards on the Patriots' ensuing drive and hitting linebacker Mike Vrabel (this was one of Belichick's favorite gimmick plays back in the day) in the end zone.
Two-point conversion good. Pats up, 29-22. 2:55 to go in the game. This was the kind of Super Bowl drama network executives dream of.
Delhomme took over at his own 20 and after a couple of handoffs to Foster, he hit Ricky Proehl for a 31-yard gain, setting up Carolina in New England territory. Three plays later, Delhomme found Proehl again, this time for a touchdown. With the extra point good, we had a tie game with 1:13 left. Would this be the first Super Bowl to go into overtime?
Unfortunately, Panthers fans reading this already know what's coming next. John Kasay, one of the best kickers of his generation, made the biggest mistake of his career, shanking the ensuing kickoff out of bounds and setting up the Patriots at their 40-yard line -- with all three timeouts, no less. Brady needed just five plays and 37 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning kick.
In retrospect, this game undoubtedly holds up as a modern-day classic. Big moments, big personalities, great players making great plays -- that's about all you can ask for from a Super Bowl.
The Patriots won another Super Bowl the following season, solidifying their dynasty. They continued to be major players for the next two decades, making the big game three more times and winning a fourth title in the 2014 season. Brady and Belichick are still around, terrorizing the AFC on an annual basis.
However, the Panthers took a step back after coming oh-so-close, going 7-9 the next season. They went on something of a yo-yo run over the next few years, making the NFC Championship in 2005 but posting losing records the following two years. The Fox era finally ended in 2010, when Carolina went 2-14 and had pretty much no choice to fire him. Most players from that Super Bowl team have retired, although Peppers and Smith are still playing, both of them likely future Hall of Famers.
With Fox gone and the No. 1 overall pick in their hands, this set the stage for the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era that would define the Panthers in the 2010s, culminating in a 15-1 2015 season and their second Super Bowl appearance. If their first game was any indication, this matchup with the Denver Broncos promises to be another thrilling clash.