On a warm evening in Charlotte, NC the New England Patriots faced off against the Carolina Panthers on ESPN on the national broadcast Monday Night Football game. Two teams with strong-armed quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Cam Newton), strong running backs (Stevan Ridley and DeAngelo Williams), productive, but unheralded, receivers (Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson et al and Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, and more), and big, pass-catching tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen).
On defense, the Patriots had been ravaged by injuries to both starting defensive tackles (Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly) and linebacker Jerod Mayo. The secondary saw starting cornerback Aqib Talib return to the lineup while fellow starter Alfonzo Dennard was injured in practice and out of the lineup for the near future. The secondary later had cornerback Kyle Arrington dinged up and Talib was in and out of the lineup during the game.
The Panthers defense is one of the top units in the NFL and is responsible for their 6-3 record and spot just behind New Orleans in the NFC South. The unit is built around former Boston College standout in linebacker Luke Kuechly and his running mate linebacker Thomas Davis. Their freedom to operate in space is a result of the dynamic defensive line with rookie Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei inside and Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy outside. This Panthers unit has been a solid unit all season being at or near the lead in defensive categories, but tonight it was the New England offense that stopped themselves.
The missed opportunities hurt the Patriots as the defense fell short at the end and the offense just did not have enough at the end as they fell short. After the Patriots failed to convert a third and one inside the ten yard line and was forced to kick a field goal to take the lead, Carolina came right back again, with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton using his legs on third down to convert two third downs on the drive. How the Patriots defense was not ready for Newton running the ball is a mystery as he out-rushed the three high price running backs on the Panthers roster.
When the Patriots were in position to get the ball back and hold Carolina to a field goal, a key penalty by Patriots safety Devin McCourty on third and seven with 2:01 to play extended the drive for the Panthers. Cam Newton found former Dolphins wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with a minute to play in the game for a twenty-five yard touchdown that ended up to be the winner.
New England’s offense had a final chance with a minute to play. Their last minute drive was to try and score a touchdown with very little time to play as Carolina was ahead by four.
Quarterback Tom Brady found the offense with three seconds on the clock and the Patriots at the Carolina eighteen yard line. Unfortunately, his pass was intercepted. However, there was a penalty flag down in the end zone.
But on Monday night it was not to be. The officials picked up the flag for pass interference in the end zone (tight end Rob Gronkowski was clearly impeded to go back and get the ball) and Carolina escaped with a 24-20 win. While the Patriots may been frustrated not to get the call in the end zone, the team had squandered multiple chances to score earlier in the game on numerous occasions.
Early in the game, the Patriots offense self-destructed after strong drives against the Carolina defense. After stopping Carolina on a three-and-out to open the game, quarterback Tom Brady attacked the Panthers mixing runs with short passes. However, the theme of the evening (missed opportunities) reared its head and the drive ended when New England’s offensive line blew a coverage rotation and allowed Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy to sack Brady.
On their second drive, the Patriots were able to convert a fourth-and-two at the Carolina thirty-five yard line. In the red zone, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball away and the Panthers recovered. By the time the Patriots got the ball back it was 10-0 Carolina. The Patriots offense self-destructed again on their final drive of the first half, this time it was a fifteen yard unnecessary roughness penalty on guard Logan Mankins. This stopped the drive cold and the Patriots were fortunate to get to field goal range and make it 10-3 Carolina at halftime.