An average NFL quarterback could have won this game for the Carolina Panthers. The combination of New England's limited pass rush and a below-average secondary would have any offensive coordinator licking his chops. Fortunately for the Patriots, Matt Moore was throwing ducks all over the field. And the Panthers were undisciplined and incapable of capitalizing on numerous Patriots mistakes.
In an unusual twist, it was the running game that brought the Patriots' overall grade up to a C-minus. The passing game was below average on the whole. The lackluster first quarter for the offense was as poor an opening performance as this offense has had all year.
Tom Brady played OK. Unfortunately, OK is no longer enough. This offense will need to be better than OK to get into the playoffs. Brady had some overthrows, but the drops were a problem also.
Randy Moss is struggling, to say the least. If there is an injury that we do not know of, that is one thing. But if not, this cannot go on. Whether or not Moss is simply frustrated or dissatisfied is not the question. The question is: Has he quit on the Patriots? Take frustration off the table. Moss is sixth in the NFL in receiving yardage and 13th in receptions. So, it would be difficult to imagine dissatisfaction based on the numbers. You are not allowed to pout with those numbers. That is what it feels like Moss is doing: pouting. I know it is difficult to imagine someone with the talent of Randy Moss to be capable of pouting, but I have seen it before in the league. The knee jerk reaction is to say Moss has to "suck it up" and just play. This situation might be a little more difficult than that. Moss has to be brought back into the fold by a combination of things. The only teammates in a position to talk to him might be Brady, Kevin Faulk and Wes Welker. Those guys and the coaches have to bring him out of this funk. They have to figure out whatever combination of encouragement, support, cajoling and confrontation will work. I know this reeks of coddling, and it sticks in my craw to say this, but it has always been the case and is even more true now than ever that superstars are treated differently. Randy Moss is not a lost cause. He just needs to remember what is good and fun about football. He needs to be reminded why he came here in the first place. Moss came to New England to be part of something bigger than himself. Bigger than the Hall of Fame player he had already become. He came here to be part of a run at a championship.
Welker is what he is. Pound for pound (or maybe inch for inch) he is one of the toughest players — not just receivers — in the NFL. For a kid who has had to fight every step of the way for everything he has, was it a surprise that the monster hit he took only seemed to spur him on to play even harder and better?
Ben Watson was a surprise part of the offense. He did a good job, especially considering he has been an afterthought in the passing game lately. Perhaps it was the absence of third receiver Sam Aiken that made him the next best target on the list. Either way, he is a pretty good tight end, and it is good to see him involved in the offense.
Faulk and Laurence Maroney ran smart and hard. It was no surprise that the Patriots were able to put up very good rushing numbers. Carolina is among the league's worst against the run. This sounds strange, but credit the coaches with sticking to the run. I say that because we have, at times, seen the coaches get away from what seemed to be working.
The offensive line was a mix-and-match effort again. Matt Light started at left tackle but was substituted at times with Sebastian Vollmer. Both guys played well enough. Whether it was planned or not, Vollmer also came in for Nick Kaczur at right tackle. The timing was curious because Vollmer came in almost immediately after Kaczur had some obvious problems. Do not be surprised to see Vollmer getting even more time at right tackle over the next three weeks. The Patriots still miss Stephen Neal on the interior of the line.
A below-average performance overall for the offense. But this was against a poor team. Minus-3 in turnovers will cause you to lose nine out of 10 games. And remember, the Pats' longest play was a very bad pass interference call on Carolina for 30 yards. Twenty points may not cut it against the likes of Jacksonville or Houston. It was good to see some second-half offense. I had almost forgotten what it was like.
The only threat posed by the Carolina offense was a good running game. Fortunately for the Patriots, a number of things stopped the Panthers from using that running game effectively. The Panthers obviously thought they could abuse the Patriots pass defense as had so many recent opponents. Had they decided to control the clock with the run, the Panthers could have won the game. Moore was not up to the task of beating the Pats through the air. He had receivers open and could not hit them. His receivers responded with a few drops to boot. Outside of one deep pass, the Carolina passing game was not much of a threat. Add to that 92 yards in Carolina penalties and you can see how a bad team will find ways to lose.
The New England secondary let up an early touchdown pass to Steve Smith when it looked like he beat Shawn Springs on a post pattern. When you see a cornerback in man coverage and he immediately jumps to get outside leverage on the receiver, it almost always means he is expecting help in the middle from the safety. When you saw Smith breaking open in the deep middle, you could also see Brandon Meriweather, again, biting up on a receiver doing a deep crossing route. Meriweather has to stay back where his first responsibility is.
That was the first of too many open receivers on Sunday. They got open in part because of mistakes by the secondary and linebackers and in part by the lack of any discernible pass rush until late in the game. Fortunately for the Pats, the Panthers were unable to take much advantage of it because their QB stinks.
DeAngelo Williams is a very good running back. I would have assumed the Carolina coaches would use him better than they did. He ran pretty well against the Pats defense. The Patriots linebackers were out of position a few times, especially after Vince Wilfork was out of the game. Gary Guyton and Jerod Mayo could do better getting off of blocks. Both of these guys flow well and read well enough for second-year guys, but they both have such great speed you expect them to be around the ball more than they are. Derrick Burgess came up with a sack. Maybe he got the message that Adalius Thomas never got. One of the questions before the game was: Would the Patriots miss Thomas out there? A better question is: Would they notice he was gone?
This whole Adalius Thomas thing is sad. He is a talented athlete who needs to find his way back in. He will not get the same chances a Randy Moss will get.
The defensive line took a huge hit with Wilfork going down. It will be disastrous if he is out of the lineup. He was having an All-Pro year. Making the Pro Bowl makes you the best in your conference. Making All-Pro means you are the best in the entire NFL. Vince is right there at the All Pro level.
Ty Warren was productive despite playing a little hurt. Jarvis Green was making a little noise after being somewhat quiet this year. Titus Adams better work hard this week in practice if he is expected to play. Watching the game with Fred Smerlas is great. Fred sees interior line play as well as anyone and he instantly pointed out that Adams was too far off the ball and standing up at the snap.
The "plus" comes from the fact that the defense held the Panthers to 10 points. Even as bad as the Carolina offense is, 10 points still is an accomplishment.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Nothing spectacular here. But there are a few things to keep an eye on. Stephen Gostkowski is still very good on field goals but is losing some distance on his kickoffs. The coverage team has been adequate, so it has not been an issue yet.
Punter Chris Hanson kicked poorly. He did not pin the Panthers when he had the chance. It was good to see rookie long snapper Jake Ingram snap fairly well in some adverse conditions.
How long will Wes Welker keep pulling the punt return assignment? He is very good at it, but I hold my breath every time he returns the ball.
Buffalo should be a good special teams test this week.
The pass-rushing talent is not there. The coaches need to design some interesting blitz scenarios to help the guys get to the QB.
The temptation when you have a Tom Brady is to open up the offense with the passing game. But when the game plan says to run and the running game is working that well, then let it roll and stay out of the way.
The team finally finished a game the right way. Players and coaches get some credit for that.
Belichick had an interesting week, and how he handles the Randy Moss situation will be under great scrutiny. He has not lost faith in Moss and still believes Randy will be fine. We shall see.