At the end of his morning commute, Houston quarterback Jake Delhomme is treated to a familiar sight: the hulking Reliant Stadium, which towers over the adjacent Astrodome, known as the 8th Wonder of the World when it opened in 1965.
Delhomme signed with the Texans two weeks ago as a backup to rookie T.J. Yates following injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. But Delhomme can't help thinking of Carolina when he comes to work each day at Reliant, where he and the Panthers fell to New England 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1, 2004.
"Those memories are still very vivid and they are great memories," Delhomme said Thursday. "I do think about it, because we drive in here every day."
The Panthers (4-9) make their first trip to Houston since the Super Bowl this weekend when they face the Texans (10-3), who earned their first postseason berth last week when they clinched the AFC South title.
After kicker John Kasay was released in July, only two players remain from the 2003 team - receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross.
Smith caught four passes for 80 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown, against the Patriots. Gross, a rookie in '03, was the starter at right tackle.
Panthers assistant wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl also was a member of the '03 team and played in the Super Bowl. Proehl caught a 12-yard touchdown from Delhomme that tied the score at 29 with 1:08 remaining.
It appeared the game was headed to overtime. But Kasay's kickoff sailed out of bounds, allowing the Patriots to start at their 40-yard line and giving Tom Brady a short field.
Brady hit Deion Branch for 17 yards on third-and-3 to set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning, 41-yard field goal with four seconds left.
Smith was initially reluctant to talk much about the Super Bowl, saying the game has no bearing on this week's. Nor is this Smith's first trip back to Reliant Stadium: He took his son to the Final Four there last spring.
"There's nothing that can compare to going to the Super Bowl - the media atmosphere, the media questions, media day. The appearances that you make," Smith said. "Everything around it is so much more intensified. There's so many more people."
The team practiced at the University of Houston and stayed at a hotel outside of town. Panthers coach John Fox took the team even farther out the night before the game - to a golf resort an hour and a half away - to minimize the distractions.
The next day, the Panthers and Patriots played one of the more competitive and entertaining Super Bowls - although the day might be remembered most for Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during a halftime performance with Justin Timberlake.
"I think one of the neat things about that game, at the end of the game when we thought we were going to win, there was a shift in the stadium," Smith said. "That was probably one of the most even playing fields for a championship game that I've ever experienced. When we played in Philly (in the NFC Championship Game), that was an away game and they let you know."
Though the Panthers fell just short, Smith said the fourth-quarter performance was a microcosm of a season when the Panthers tied an NFL record with three overtime victories.
"We were rolling pretty good. How we ended the fourth quarter was kind of how we cemented how we played, and how the fourth quarter was our time. There was never any doubt," Smith said.
Staff writer Ron Green Jr. contributed.