CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The real death knell for the Patriots was not a flag picked up on the final play of the game.
Right now, you’re incensed that the game ended the way it did. Tom Brady leads the Patriots on an 80-yard drive with 59 seconds left and all three timeouts. Brady gets them to the Carolina Panthers 18-yard line with three seconds left. Brady tries to hit Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. Robert Lester makes a game-ending interception. Penalty marker thrown. Luke Kuechly mugs Gronkowski in the end zone. Interference on Carolina. Patriots’ ball at the one, and an untimed down as a half cannot end on a defensive foul.
Except the flag was picked up. Game over. Carolina hangs on for a 24-20 Monday night win at Bank of America Stadium.
The play that did the Patriots in happened a while back. The teams traded touchdowns in the second half, but on their first offensive possession of the fourth quarter, the Panthers were finally held to a three-and-out. The Patriots got the ball at the Carolina 39, with the score tied at 17. They rode the broad shoulders of LeGarrette Blount with some power runs and were perched at the 8-yard line, third down and one. Blount had five carries for 14 yards on the drive, but was finding tough yards against a stout Panther defense.
But on third down and one, Josh McDaniels called for a pass play off a play fake. Nobody on the Carolina defense bit on the fake, and Brady had to throw the ball away. The Patriots settled for a 26-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski (which was almost botched by holder Ryan Allen) and the Patriots had their only lead of the night at 20-17. The Patriots had to get a touchdown here, and why Blount’s number wasn’t called again was a mistake which cost the Patriots the game in the end.
The Patriots couldn’t get another stop. Cam Newton led the Panthers on an 83-yard drive, culminating with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn on a quick screen where Kyle Arrington badly whiffed on a tackle. Newton helped his own cause with a 15-yard scramble on third down and six from the Panther 21, and also found tight end Greg Olsen for 14 yards to set up Ginn’s score.
All game long, the Patriots were fighting battles with both Newton and themselves. Newton is finally realizing his vast potential after being a Heisman Trophy winning first draft pick a few years back, and he killed the Patriots with both his arm and his running. Newton led the Panthers in rushing with 62 yards on seven carries and a nearly nine yards per carry average. Newton’s passing numbers were 19 of 28 for 209 yards, three touchdowns and a 125.4 passer rating. When the Patriots failed to get a touchdown on the aforementioned drive, you just knew Newton would find a way to win the game.
The Patriots hurt themselves with two sacks of Brady, key penalties, and a costly lost fumble by Stevan Ridley. The Patriots were held to only three points in the first half, but that was more about the lost fumble, a personal foul on Logan Mankins and a missed block by Nate Solder which produced a Greg Hardy sack which prevented more points by the Patriots. Bad tackling also hurt the Patriots; a 14-yard scramble by Newton in the third quarter with the Panthers on their own 37 facing third down and seven was a killer.
Another subplot which the Patriots lost big time was the matchup between Steve Smith and Aqib Talib, the latter just coming back from an injury. Smith, the one Carolina holdover from Super Bowl XXXVIII, badgered and taunted Talib all game long, and goaded him into a personal foul penalty which extended a Panther touchdown drive in the first quarter. Talib made some plays on Smith in the fourth quarter, but overall Smith killed Talib and made him lose his composure.
Brady finished with 29 of 40 passing for 296 yards and one touchdown and a passer rating of 91.2. Blount led the Patriots in rushing with 49 yards and a 4.9 yards per carry average. Shane Vereen, who like Talib was coming off an injury, led the Patriot receivers with eight catches for 65 yards. Kenbrell Thompkins had the nicest catch of the evening, a 37-yard third quarter grab which set up a Ridley one-yard touchdown run.
If the Patriots do play the Panthers again in the Bill Belichick Era, the venerable coach will perhaps design a better game plan to either stop or contain Newton. Newton was never presented with anything that befuddled him, and his long scramble runs turned out to be lethal to the Patriots. Granted, the Patriots are decimated on defense without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, but outside players like Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones should be responsible for outside containment and at times seemed to either forget to contain or did contain but whiffed on tackles.
On the game’s final play, it was clear that Kuechly held Gronkowski in the end zone. What is debatable is whether or not Gronkowski could actually have caught that ball if Lester hadn’t picked off the ball in front of him. If nothing else, if Gronkowski could not have made the catch, then Kuechly should have been flagged for defensive holding and the Patriots get an untimed down at the 13 rather than the one. Brady and Ryan Mallett screamed at referee Clete Blakeman as he left the field, but Blakeman basically ignored him. It was a frustrating end for the Patriots, but the picked up flag did not lose the game for the Patriots.
The Patriots now have a short week to get ready for another titanic battle with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who just handed Kansas City its first loss and took over the lead in the AFC West. The Patriots have to pick up their guts, stuff them back inside their shirt and get ready for another prime time national telecast.
But the Patriots, according to Brady, “let one get away”. The Patriots may be looking at still another first round playoff bye disappear in two weeks in November.