I was tempted not to watch the tape of the New England Patriots loss to the Carolina Panthers, just because of that ridiculous no call at the end of the game. But I sucked it up and plowed through. There was a lot of positives that I found throughout the game, with a lot of them coming on the offensive side of the ball. Brady had all of his weapons at his side for the first time in 2013, and his offense finally began to resemble that well-oiled machine that we have grown used to, over the last couple of years. Considering the circumstances, the defense played well. I can’t remember the last time that I saw a unit get decimated by injury like this Pats defense has, but they have fought hard, doing the best they can with what they have.
Passing Offense: A-
Coming into this game, we knew that if Tom Brady was afforded time to throw, there were matchups to be had in the back end. Carolina’s defense is one of the best in the league, but their secondary is far from elite. Aside from two early sacks, the Pats offensive line gave Brady plenty of time to throw all night, and with his new fully healthy arsenal of weapons, Brady took advantage. Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski dominated the middle of the field, combing for 14 catches and 131 yards. The combination of those three between the hashes will be extremely tough for defenses to stop come playoff time, which I am sure will make Mr. Brady happy. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins didn’t blow us away with their play, but they did their job, which was get open and provide the Pats with a threat outside of the numbers. They combined to catch six balls for a total of 98 yards, which will definitely be enough for an offense that has plenty of talent to take the load off of the rookies. Shane Vereen also provided a big spark out of the backfield, coming up with eight catches for 65 yards, most of which came while he was split out wide. Vereen is another matchup nightmare for defenses, which makes this offense even harder to stop. Brady finished the game with 296 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception (which shouldn’t have counted). He was accurate all night long, surgically slicing up what was the best defense in the league. This performance was extremely encouraging, and it appears that Brady has resurrected his high powered attack just in time for another Brady versus Peyton clash.
Rushing Offense: B+
If you take out Stevan Ridley’s second quarter fumble, this unit produced very well. The combination of Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount went for 104 yards on 24 carries, including one touchdown from Ridley. All three of these backs bring a different skill-set to the table, making it very tough for defenses to slow them down. The offensive line also had a solid outing in this department, winning the battle against possibly the best front seven in the NFL, for the majority of the game. There were a lot of holes to be found for Ridley, Blount and Vereen, which has to be credited to the resilient big fellas up front.
Pass Defense: B-
This group would get a lower grade if they weren’t so banged up. They were without starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Steve Gregory to start the game, and they finished it with Aqib Talib on the bench. But they hung tough throughout the contest, at least making it tough for Cam Newton. Devin McCourty was called for a questionable holding penalty on a critical third down on the Panthers final drive, which ended up being extremely costly, as five plays later, Ted Ginn Jr. beat Kyle Arrington on a hitch route for a 25 yard touchdown. Arrington took a horrible angle on the tackle on the play, which was eerily similar to last year when Michael Crabtree of the San Francisco 49ers beat Arrington on the exact same route for the winning touchdown. Duron Harmon had a few bad plays, but for a rookie, I thought he played his coverages well. The one major breakdown that I saw from him, came in the first quarter when Brandon LaFell beat him for a nine yard score. Harmon failed to react to LaFell breaking across the goal-line, which resulted in an easy six. Not coming up with a turnover is the biggest negative that I have for this group. They did limit the Panthers to 197 total passing yards, but not coming up with a turnover is inexcusable, and it cost them in this one. They also failed to come up with one stop at the end of the game, and that is something that they will have to do eventually, if a Super Bowl is what they wish to achieve.
Technically, the stat sheet has Rob Ninkovich down for two sacks, and Chandler Jones with one. But when you watch those plays, it really should give Ninkovich a half of a sack, and Jones with one and a half. The extra sack came on a run play to Newton, where Ninkovich dropped him for a one yard loss. The other two were just terrific plays by Jones, and he deserves at least half of the second. A lot of people have said that there was no pressure on Newton all game long, and that is half true, and half not. The Patriots did not attempt to rush Newton for the most part, instead electing to contain him (that didn’t work), and play coverage. There were times where New England got to him, but they then failed to finish the play, and ‘Superman’ then turned it into a big gain on the ground. I thought that putting some heat on the young Newton might do the Pats some good, but Belichick decided against it, and it backfired in this situation.
Rush Defense: B
103 yards on 23 carries doesn’t look very good, but Cam Newton really skews those numbers. Newton ran for 62 yards on seven carries, most of which came via a scramble. It is the Patriots fault for not keeping contain on him, but it is not necessarily a reflection on their ability to stop the run. New England held the three Carolina running backs to 41 yards on 16 carries in this game, which I think is an A+ effort. They often went with a big 3-4 front, with Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Isaac Sopoaga in the middle. That group, along with Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes, closed down the middle throughout the game, effectively locking up the 10th best rushing team in the NFL. For a unit that came into this game ranked 30th in run defense, New England’s efforts were pretty damn good. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, as stopping the run in the playoffs is priority number one for any defensive unit.