FOXBORO — It was not a masterpiece.
One of the quarterbacks had 59 passing yards and an interception at halftime … and his team ended up winning the game. There was a missed field goal, there were more than 100 yards of penalties and the winning team turned the ball over three times.
In the end, it was enough for the Patriots to beat the Panthers, 20-10 (click here for the complete recap). The victory did allow the Patriots to snap a rare two-game losing streak, improve to 8-5 and take another step toward clinching the AFC East. Along the way, New England got very good performances from Wes Welker (10 catches, 105 yards) and Laurence Maroney (94 hard-earned rushing yards).
But in truth, the day was an excellent backdrop for the game. Amidst cold, wet, rainy and raw conditions, both teams were sluggish. The Patriots were playing flat and uninspired football until the midway point of the third quarter. Randy Moss caught just one pass for 16 yards and was booed several times throughout the first half. And Tom Brady was ineffective throughout much of the first half — Carolina’s Matt Moore, thrust into the No. 1 job when starter Jake Delhomme went down with a finger injury, had more than doubled Brady’s passing yardage at halftime (131 to 59).
As for the Panthers, they weren’t much better. Carolina somehow found the end zone early but struggled through most of the afternoon, only getting inside the New England 40-yard line once in the second half. The Panthers’ vaunted running game never got started, despite the fact that the Patriots played a sizable portion of the game without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who went to the sideline twice with an injury. And the two quarterbacks combined for a 156.2 passer rating — less than the 158.3 Drew Brees hung on the Patriots two weeks ago.
However, at this stage of the season for New England, there’s no interest in style points. No, at this stage of the season, with the Patriots having undergone a tumultuous week and fighting for a division title, just being able to come out of an ugly game like Sunday’s contest with a win is sometimes good enough.
“Not perfect, but a good, solid effort — one we can build on here,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
“You can’t characterize a win, because a win is a win,” said kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who connected on a pair of fourth-quarter field goals. “They all count as one. Even if you beat them by two or 100, they all count the same.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium:
RANDY MOSS IS IN THE THROES OF HIS WORST SLUMP AS A PATRIOT
Moss finished with one catch for 16 yards and contributed little if nothing at all to the victory. In fact, almost every time Brady targeted Moss, bad things happened. The first pass attempt — which came late in the first quarter — was dropped. On the very next play, a pass for Moss was picked off by Carolina’s Chris Gamble.
And Moss fumbled on his next attempt. In the end, he ended up with more tackles (two) than catches (one). After the game, Moss didn’t speak to reporters, but Gamble told The Boston Globe that the receiver checked out.
For much of the afternoon, he looked miserable, sitting by himself most of the afternoon on the bench — the only player within hollering distance was long snapper Jake Ingram. (While the other offensive position players were sitting on one bench talking with coaches, Moss sat alone on the other bench.) Brady came over at one point to say a few words to him and pat him on the back, but it was clear that Moss was in a funk from which no one was going to shake him.
Moss has 11 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the last four games.
“He was frustrated in himself and the situation, and it’s just something you’ve got to fight through,” Brady said. “He keeps fighting through it, and you have those days where it’s not all great, but you keep lining up and you keep going up. You’ve just got to keep fighting.”
PROPER PREPARATION PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE
According to outside linebacker Pierre Woods, those are the “Five P’s,” and they played a role in his return to the starting lineup on Sunday.
“I get a lot of time in practice. You go out there and it’s like, ‘Practice makes perfect,’” Woods said after Sunday’s game. “I try to do my job, and I think I did OK.”
“I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that I was going to come in here and be prepared to get ready to play each and every day, and that was it,” Woods added when he was asked if he knew he was going to get extra time on Sunday because Adalius Thomas was a healthy scratch.
Woods, who started three games last season after Thomas was injured, got the call in place of the deactivated Thomas and saw the bulk of the snaps at outside linebacker. Rob Ninkovich was on the field for most third downs and other passing situations, but for the most part, Woods was the primary beneficiary of Thomas’ absence. He ended up with two tackles on defense and a special teams tackle.
“Pierre Woods and Rob Ninkovich, I think those guys did an excellent job setting the edge,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo.
“When you’re called upon, you just try to do the best of your ability, the best job you can do. Let the coaches know they can count on you," said Woods. "Basically, that’s what it is. I really appreciated it, and I had a good time. I love being out there in all phases.”
Woods has seen a drastic dip in his playing time recently, but isn’t going to complain about his situation. The undrafted free agent out of Michigan loves special teams — he leads the Patriots in special teams tackles. Plus, his eyes are wide-open to the reality of the world when he leaves Gillette Stadium.
“How can you complain about a job like this? Some people aren’t working,” Woods said. “It’s a blessing to be able to come in here and play.”
KEVIN FAULK HAS BEEN THERE ALL ALONG
In the wake of a week’s worth of craziness, Faulk has suddenly emerged as a rock-steady presence in the locker room. He’s the only guy on the 53-man roster left who predates Bill Belichick in Foxboro, one of the only people left in the locker room who remembers the bad old days of cramped lockers, cold showers and a culture of mediocrity.
On Sunday, Faulk had 75 all-purpose yards in Sunday’s win over the Panthers. That included 58 rushing yards, three of which came on New England’s first touchdown run of the day where he celebrated by firing the ball at the wall behind the end zone. (He later described the play as an “emotional” run.)
After the game, the veteran running back — one of Moss’ closest friends on the roster — delivered a passionate defense of the receiver, telling reporters that no one in the organization is upset with Moss. He also talked about what it means to be a leader in tough times.
“As a veteran player, you know what’s at stake this time of year and what your goal is,” Faulk said. “And in order to reach our goal, we might have to get a little emotional.
“It’s about going out there and leading by example,” he added. “Going out there and leading by the way you play. Leading by the way you do your job.”
THE PATRIOTS TIGHT ENDS CAN DO MORE THAN JUST BLOCK
In recent weeks, Patriots tight ends Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker have been utilized more as blockers than as pass-catchers — the two have combined for just 22 catches in the last 10 games. On Sunday, Watson had three catches for 37 yards and a touchdown, his first receptions since an Oct. 25 win over Tampa Bay.
The touchdown reception came late in the third quarter, and the five-yard scoring strike put the capper on a 13-play, 96-yard scoring drive that was the longest of the season for the Patriots. Along the way, it gave a small boost to New England’s red zone offense, which has sputtered in recent weeks, but was 2-for3 on touchdown opportunities in the red area on Sunday.
For Watson, it was the fifth touchdown of the season. It’s not an overwhelming offensive onslaught, but it’s a start, especially for the Georgia product, who now has five receptions over his last four weeks.
“Everyone always asks me, ‘Why don’t you get the ball to Ben?’ and when we do get it to him, he makes those plays,” Brady said of Watson, who caught all three passes that were thrown in his direction. “He’s always been a consistent player for us and he was today. … That touchdown was a big play on third-and-5 in the red area. I mean, that’s what we’ve been talking about — those critical plays, you know?”
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI HAS A BIGGER LEG THAN JOHN KASAY
With 3:34 left in the second quarter, Carolina kicker John Kasay was lining up for a 53-yard field goal attempt toward the open end of Gillette Stadium that would have given the Panthers a 10-0 lead. Considering the flat, ineffective nature of the New England offense to that point in the game, it’s not a stretch to consider that a made field goal would have given the Panthers a commanding lead.
But Kasay’s kick fell short, the Patriots got the ball at their 43-yard line, and five plays later, they had tied the game at seven, thanks to a questionable pass interference penalty that gave New England 30 yards en route to a three-yard dash from Faulk for the score.
Compare that momentum swing to the one the Patriots enjoyed in the fourth quarter when Gostkowski connected on not one but two long field goals, also toward the open end of Gillette Stadium. Gostkowski booted a 48-yarder to make it 17-10 with 7:25 left in regulation, and added a 47-yarder for good measure with 4:01 remaining in the game on New England’s next possession.
The windy, rainy afternoon drew some comparisons to the Buffalo game last season, a contest that featured winds gusting to 55 mph.
“It wasn’t the easiest day, but it wasn’t like Buffalo last year,” said Gostkowski, who went over 100 points on the day for the fourth straight season. “It was just good to make a few kicks and get a win. You don’t really think about the conditions because we practice in a lot worse conditions during the week, and it seemed a lot easier today than it would have been if we were in Buffalo.”
“I think Steve hit a couple over 50 [yards] in pregame — 51, 52,” Belichick said. “I think those were in the high 40s, right? Forty-six, 47 [yards], somewhere in there, so we felt that was a few yards into his range. We felt good about that. The play there on third down to Kevin [Faulk] to pick up nine or 10 yards on that third-and-14, or whatever it was, that was a big play to get us into field goal range.
“Steve’s got plenty of leg. He’s a strong kicker. I thought his balls were carrying pretty well — not like they do in September or in Florida — but we felt he was good for a little bit over 50.”
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE CONTINUES TO EVOLVE
The Patriots presented a handful of different looks along the offensive line. With Stephen Neal injured and inactive, the versatile Dan Connolly continued his quest to become Russ Hochstein for a new generation when he went wire-to-wire in his place at right guard. (He’s also filled in at center.)
In addition, New England used rotating tackles throughout the game, starting with Matt Light at left tackle and Nick Kaczur at right tackle and spelling both with Sebastian Vollmer, playing for the first time since Nov. 22 because of a head injury. Brady was not sacked on the day — and Julius Peppers was rendered a non-factor much of the afternoon — but Kaczur appeared to swing and miss on a few assignments.
The series of rotating tackles was part of a plan to make sure all three got some playing time, according to Belichick. The group was helped by the fact that Vollmer had some positional versatility — he had played some right and left tackle in college before seeing time almost exclusively at left tackle before Sunday’s game.
“I’m not sure exactly how the number of plays worked out, but they all played a significant part,” Belichick said of the trio of tackles. “I think that was probably good for them to get a little break. It’s not often those guys do, and be able to come back in and be fresh and go on those long drives. But we tried to work Sebastian back in this week, and he did with a decent number of plays.”
“You practice it and try to be ready when the situation comes,” said Vollmer. “When coach tells you to get in, you better be ready. So I take every chance, every opportunity I get in practice and in the game to get better.”
ON SUNDAY, THE PATRIOTS ACTUALLY LOOKED FORWARD TO THE SECOND HALF
Over the course of the season, few stats have been stranger than New England’s second-half scoring woes. While many of their struggles in the third and fourth quarters have taken place away from home (in their five road losses, New England has been outscored 83-24 in the second half), they’ve also struggled at home. Heading into Sunday’s game, in the prior two weeks, New England had been outscored 26-14 in the second half. And in their last two home games — against the Dolphins and the Jets — the Patriots had barely outscored the opposition in the second half, 18-14.
On Sunday, the Patriots were able to flip the script. They looked flat and uninspired in the first half, turning the ball over three times in the first two quarters. But they were able to come up with 13 second-half points, including one of their steadiest and more sustained drives in recent memory.
“The important thing is, we have the second half,” said Faulk when asked about the team's thoughts at halftime. “The thing on our mind was, ‘OK, just keep playing. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ The ball wasn’t bouncing our way, we had too many turnovers in the first half. But at the same time, we knew that there was a second half that we had to play.
“And that was one of our goals coming in, finishing the game. We might have had a horrible start, but finishing the game is what’s going to win it for you.”
DON’T WRITE JAMES SANDERS AND SHAWN SPRINGS OFF JUST YET
Sanders, who saw his playing time cut drastically with the emergence of Brandon McGowan, and Springs, who was inactive over the last month, both saw considerable time on Sunday against the Panthers. Both got the start, and were involved in several plays on the afternoon. Sanders had seven tackles and had a pass defensed (but dropped a sure interception), while Springs ended up with three tackles.
The move to go to the two wasn’t a shock — some defensive starters said that the two spent the bulk of the week getting the reps with the starters, so it wasn’t a surprise.
“It’s extremely hard, extremely difficult, but we’re professionals and we have to be professional about it,” Sanders said of his demotion. “Whatever role they ask me, I have to do to the best of my ability to help the team; whatever role that may be.
“At the time, throughout most of the season I wasn’t playing defense, but I couldn’t worry about myself individually. I have to worry about the team. Definitely trying not to be a distraction and be professional about the situation. I am just very proud I got my opportunity today and all other feelings have to wait until the off-season.”
THE RUNNING GAME — AND LAURENCE MARONEY — IS CAPABLE OF MAKING A SERIOUS CONTRIBUTION TO THE OFFENSE
Brady was not at his best, hobbled by a panoply of injuries that included but was not limited to a finger, ribs and shoulder. His ineffectiveness showed throughout the first half — he had just 59 passing yards and an interception at halftime. As a result, the Patriots were forced to lean more on their running game, and Maroney had one of his finest games of the season.
The numbers should be taken with a colossal grain of salt because the Panthers were one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the run (entering Sunday, they were 26th in the league, yielding an average of 133.3 rushing yards per game), but Maroney ran well all day, finishing with 94 yards, his second-best performance of the season. Kevin Faulk had 58 yards on 10 carries and Sammy Morris added six carries for 35 yards. (Morris provided the only negative moment for the running game, fumbling the ball away in the third quarter.)
As a group, New England had 185 rushing yards, its second-best output of the season, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. (The Pats had 193 rushing yards in the 59-0 blowout of Tennessee.) They easily outgained the vaunted Carolina running attack, 185-126.
“Good blocking and good running — there’s no real magic formula to it,” Belichick said when asked about the secret to the success of the running game on Sunday. “I thought our backs ran hard. We got a little bit of yards after contact, we got the ball outside, we also ran plays inside, so we had some balance in the running game [and] that helped us on some play action passes — we got some guys open.”