There were opportunities. Oh, how there were opportunities.
While it ended with a controversial non-call at the end of the game, there were plenty of chances for the Patriots to escape from Carolina with a win Monday night. There was some curious play-calling in important situations -- like the decision to pass on third-and-1 at the Carolina 8-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. They couldn’t stop Panthers quarterback Cam Newton with the game on the line. There was an inability to cash in when it came to offensive red zone chances. There was a key turnover when they were just shy of a touchdown. And there was some undisciplined, ragged play early on that could have very easily been avoided.
But it was the flag -- check that, the flag that was picked up after the non-call that ended the game -- that will be the story of this one, a wild 24-20 contest against the Panthers in Carolina Monday night that turned a tightly played, exciting ballgame into Fail Mary, Version 2.0.
With the Panthers clinging to a four-point lead and three seconds left, Brady and the Patriots were engaged in a comeback attempt with the ball on the Carolina 18-yard line. The quarterback took the snap from center and dropped back -- it was pretty clear he was locked in on Rob Gronkowski, and the tight end was headed for the end zone.
As the pass from Brady was headed Gronkowski's way, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly had his hands wrapped around the tight end. He had him wrapped up, hands pinned to his sides, while trying to steer him out of the play. (Check out pictures of the action here and here.) Frankly, you can’t blame defensive back Robert Lester for undercutting the route and coming away with the ball when it came in short -- he had a wide-open field of vision. So wide open, in fact, it wasn’t a colossal surprise when the flag came out.
Holding. Defensive pass interference. Something. Anything?
But after a brief discussion amongst the officiating crew, the flag was picked up and tucked away, and there was no penalty called. Ballgame over. Panthers win.
The decision enraged Brady, who was seen cursing at referee Clete Blakeman as the two teams came off the field. After the game, the official said he believed his crew did the right thing and made the correct call, arguing there was an issue with catchability.
“The back judge saw that there was contact and the defender was not playing the ball and that led him to throw for defensive pass inference,” explained Blakeman in a pool report after the game.
“[But] it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone,” Blakeman added. “So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.”
Gronkowski didn’t agree.
“I’d have to rewatch it, but I’d have to say yes [it was catchable],” Gronkowski said.
Running back Stevan Ridley was asked if he was surprised the flag was picked up.
“Not really, man,” he told reporters. “We’re not at home.”
In the wake of this scene at the end of last year’s contest against the Ravens, Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’t sound all that inclined to go chasing after the referees, preferring instead to take a swipe at them from his postgame podium.
“There was no explanation given to me. The officials ran off the field,” he said, prior to the release of Blakeman’s statement. “The last time I started asking an official about a call, that was the wrong thing to do, so I have no idea. We’ve been down that road before. Didn’t get [an explanation] tonight. Didn’t get one at the Baltimore game [in 2012 and was fined].
“I guess that’s the way we do it.”
No other way to spin this one: The Patriots got the short end of an inconsistent officiating decision. The non-call on the play in the last moments of the game took place shortly after a fourth-quarter flag against Devin McCourty for defensive holding, a play that looked far more innocuous compared to Kuechly on Gronkowski, thanks in large part to a flop from Carolina tight end Greg Olsen. (That play allowed Carolina to keep its late drive alive, one that ended five plays later when Newton found Ted Ginn for the game-winning touchdown.)
It’s sad, really -- the nonsense at the end obscured what was really a terrific game. Newton had his coming-of-age moment, throwing three touchdowns and taking his turn in the national spotlight while lifting the Panthers to their sixth straight win. The drama of the Aqib Talib-Steve Smith confrontation provided great theater. And the return of Shane Vereen (eight catches, 65 yards) and the gutty performance from Gronkowski gave a glimpse into what the New England offense could be, especially against one of the best defensive fronts in the league. If these teams somehow figure out a way to meet in Super Bowl XLVIII, it’s going to be a great matchup.
Let’s be honest: The Patriots have been beneficiaries of some well-timed calls over the last decade-plus, so there will be very little weeping nationally over what happened Monday. (Think back to this screencap from the final offensive play in the win over the Saints.) And they should shoulder most of the blame for letting this one get away -- some questionable play-calling, another fumble from Ridley on the Carolina 13-yard line, as well as and an inability to contain Newton when it mattered all loom large in this defeat.
But in a season when there’s no margin for error for the Patriots, the end-of-game sequence and referee reversal from Blakeman and company could loom large for New England, especially when one-game swings could determine home-field scenarios down the road.
“I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that,” Brady said. ”But it did.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Monday night.
ROB GRONKOWSKI CAN CONTRIBUTE WITHOUT PUTTING UP MONSTER NUMBERS
Verification can be found in a rewatching of the game film, but at first glance, it appeared that Gronkowski’s primary role was to serve more as a blocker in the early going in hopes of keeping the Carolina pass rush off Brady’s back. The big tight end was part of a group that was able to keep Brady relatively clean -- the quarterback’s ability to get the ball out relatively quickly also played a role -- as he worked primarily as a blocker in the early going. (He had one catch for 14 yards in the first half.) The second half was a different story, as he ended with five catches on seven targets for 59 yards and a touchdown. He was at his best when he collected a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brady on New England’s first drive of the second half, carrying three defenders on his back across the goal line in Bavaroesque fashion. He was also the guy who Brady went to when the Patriots were facing 4th and 10 with less than a minute left in regulation -- he responded with a colossal 23-yard pickup over the middle to keep the drive alive. And then, there was the fact that he was the target on the pass play at the end of the game. While he’s always integral to the success of the passing game, Monday was another indicator he can do more than just catch passes.
STEVE SMITH AND AQIB TALIB AREN’T GOING TO BE EXCHANGING CHRISTMAS CARDS
The two were in each other’s face from the jump, pushing and shoving and engaging in plenty of woofing. Smith appeared to get the best of Talib early: On Carolina’s second series on its second play from scrimmage, New England brought an extra rusher, and Newton was able to pick it up and deliver a 42-yarder to Smith, who was in man coverage against Talib. Smith and Talib got into it a few plays later when the receiver took exception to the fact that Talib was hanging on to his leg for a few extra seconds after a play was whistled dead led to a dustup. Talib was flagged 15 yards on the play, and was hit for his second penalty of the night later in the first half. As good as he was over the first month-plus, he was pretty bad early against the Panthers. Smith ended up with four catches for 62 yards, while Talib spent the end of the game on the bench with what the team identified as a hip problem. Point, Smith. (Smith was asked by Albert Breer of the NFL Network about what happened on the field with Talib early in the game, and he responded with, “I don’t know -- you’re going to have to ask him, because he didn’t finish the game. Ice up, son. Ice up.”)
THIS OFFENSE REALLY NEEDS SHANE VEREEN
In his first game back since suffering an wrist injury in a Week 1 win over the Bills. Vereen was a multifaceted presence, but really came up big on several occasions as a pass catcher. Working all over the field -- in the backfield or split wide -- he had nine touches on the night, and ended up with eight catches and one carry. Of those, seven went for first downs and three of those came on third-down opportunities. In the end, he finished with eight catches for 65 yards (with his longest going for 17 yards) and one rush for seven yards. He would have liked to have had one missed connection in the fourth quarter back -- he and Brady failed to connect on a wheel route down the left sideline that might have resulted in a big gain if he could have held on -- but all in all, it was an excellent return for Vereen. He remains the most versatile offensive chess piece that New England has, and it will be interesting to watch his development and he builds back to full strength between now and the end of the season.
THEY MIGHT NOT FACE A BETTER QUARTERBACK WHO MAKES THINGS HAPPEN WITH HIS LEGS THAN CAM NEWTON
Newton was contained for much of the night by a New England defensive front that was clearly prioritizing containment and gap discipline as opposed to simple pass rush, but when things broke down, Newton did an excellent job taking advantage of the situation. He ended up rushing for 62 yards on seven carries, with most of that coming on broken plays when Patriot defenders were caught out of position too far upfield. Newton was at his best on an absolutely ridiculous 14-yard scramble midway through the third quarter where, on a third-and-7 situation, he slipped away from Rob Ninkovich, proceeded to deke Ninkovich a second time, escape from the clutches of Chandler Jones and somehow put together a broken-field run that resulted in a first down. The play was the centerpiece of a 13-play, 81-yard sequence that ended with a 15-yard pass from Newton to Greg Olsen that gave Carolina a 17-10 lead. It was a resume-building win for Newton, who ended with a 19-for-28 passing performance that included 209 passing yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. A very efficient evening for the young quarterback.
BRANDON SPIKES IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE RUN DEFENSE
The Panthers came into the game as one of the best teams in the league when it came to running the football. Carolina was in the top 10 in rushing yards per game, and a diversified ground attack allowed them to lean on a variety of options. But Spikes was able to go a pretty good job leading the charge when it came to containing the Carolina running backs -- one of the best run-stoppers in the league, he finished the game with seven tackles (six solo), good for second on the team behind Ninkovich. As a group, the Panthers’ running backs had 41 yards on 16 carries, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. Mike Tolbert (6 carries, 17 yards), DeAngelo Williams (6 carries, 14 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (4 carries, 10 yards) couldn’t do much of anything against the New England run defense.
TOM BRADY NOW CAN SAY HE’S HAD SOLID BACK-TO-BACK OUTINGS
The quarterback, who hit on 13 straight throws at one point, struggled at times down the stretch. (He had 11 incompletes on the evening, and 10 of them came in the fourth quarter.) But he was sharp for much of the first three quarters -- it was clear there was a priority placed on getting the ball out as fast as possible, and Brady was able to deliver clean, catchable passes for most of the evening while doing his part to keep the Carolina pass rush at bay throughout the contest. As a result, there were few deep balls attempted, with receivers like Vereen, Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson doing a good job picking up quality yards after the catch. Brady ended up going 29-for-40 for 296 yards with a touchdown and an interception. A good night, especially against a talented defensive front like the Panthers.
THERE WILL BE SOME INTERESTING DECISIONS TO MAKE AT RUNNING BACK
There are a ton of moving parts at running back for the Patriots right now. Vereen’s return likely means fewer snaps for Brandon Bolden going forward. (Bolden was inactive on Monday for a few reasons, including the fact that Vereen returned and a knee issue that’s been bothering him.) Meanwhile, Ridley fumbled in the first half, but returned in the second half and performed well, picking up 48 yards on 13 carries and adding his seventh rushing touchdown of the season. Then, there was LeGarrette Blount, who chipped in with 10 carries for 49 tough yards -- that included a 12-yarder up the gut on the first drive of the second half, a series where he had 22 of the 80 yards and allowed the Patriots to score a touchdown for the first time on their initial drive of the second half. And that doesn’t count veteran Leon Washington, who was a scratch Monday against the Panthers.
CLOSE GAMES ARE BECOMING PAR FOR THE COURSE FOR THIS TEAM
Of the 10 games the Patriots have played to this point in the season, seven of those have been decided by seven points or less, with six games ultimately turning in the final minute of regulation (wins over the Bills, Jets, Falcons and Saints, and losses to the Bengals and Panthers) and a seventh going to overtime (a loss to the Jets). The last time the Patriots played a similar stretch of close games was the middle of 2003, where they had a 10-game string that featured seven games decided by seven points or less and four of those decided by four points or less, with one game going into overtime. It remains to be seen if the 2013 team will be able to reap the same rewards that come with that sort of struggle -- that team won nine of those 10 games and ultimately captured the Super Bowl -- but that sort of trial by fire certainly couldn’t hurt.
THERE’S NO REST FOR THE WEARY
On Monday, the Patriots were without safety Steve Gregory and corner Alfonzo Dennard, while Talib left in the late stages of the contest with that nagging hip injury and Kyle Arrington was slowed by what appeared to be a right thigh or hip injury in the second half. None of this is good news: Simply put, New England can’t afford to go into next week’s showdown with the Broncos with anything less than their best, especially on the defensive side of the football and especially in the secondary. Rookies like Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon continue to improve across the board, but as a group, the Patriots can’t expect to be competitive against Peyton Manning and the Broncos unless they have their full compliment of defensive backs. While it’s expected that Gregory will be on the shelf for another week or so, the focus for New England this week is to get as healthy as possible, particularly in the secondary.