CLEAREST WRITING ON THE WALL
Carolina got the first offensive series of the game. When the Patriots employed a dime package, the sixth defensive back onto the field was… Nate Ebner? Nate Ebner. The safety hasn't been much of a safety this season; he's played zero snaps on defense. But it was he New England called upon, rather than 2012 second-round selection Tavon Wilson. True, Wilson has been dealing with a hamstring injury this season. That's not what kept him out of action early Monday night, however.
Reportedly, New England planned to ease Shane Vereen back into the offense. The running back had not seen game action since breaking a bone in his wrist Week 1. Here's how that plan was executed: Vereen got a handoff on the team's second play of its first series. The back got the ball again on third down, as expected, and converted. He finished the first half with three catches on four targets (the second-most targeted Patriots pass catcher) for 21 yards.
The first quarter wasn't even over before tempers flared in Charlotte. Cornerback Aqib Talib, in his first game back from a hip injury, was tasked with covering Panthers receiver Steve Smith. Talib almost had a pick on Smith during Carolina's first series. Things got progressively chippy between the two as the next drive went on. Quarterback Cam Newton found Smith for a third down conversion, but the receiver and Talib got tangled up upon landing. Smith tried to kick loose of the tackle while his defender hung onto the offending leg. FIGHT. Seriously. Teammates and refs had to rush in to break things up and Talib was hit with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. He was visibly agitated for several minutes afterward and had to be calmed down on the bench by captain Devin McCourty. But damage was done: Carolina scored on the drive.
MOST PREDICTABLE PLAY
Fact: Stevan Ridley is talented as hell. Fact: Stevan Ridley has serious issues with ball security. The running back was given the nod as No. 1 runner in 2012 and gave the Patriots 1,263 yards in return. He also fumbled four times and lost two of them. He already has three fumbles (all lost) this season through nine games, including one in the red zone Monday night. The last time Ridley coughed it up, in the Patriots' 55-31 win over Pittsburgh, the coaching staff stuck with him. He finished with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. Would they show the same faith this week, when down 10-0 in the second quarter? Not by calling up LeGarrette Blount for the next series.
Good news for the Patriots after 30 minutes was they were only down 10-3. Bad news was, a decent part of the deficit can be attributed to incurring four penalties for 45 yards. Two were for unnecessary roughness, which are 15-yard heartbreakers. Talib got flagged twice (the second was for defensive holding) alone. If New England was going to turn things around, it had to start by cleaning things up.
Rob Gronkowski had just one reception in the game's first two quarters and it came under the two-minute warning. It's not like he wasn't on the field; the tight end played over 70-percent of New England's first half snaps. It looked like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needed his man most for blocking and pass protection. Until the Patriots got in the red zone, anyway. The big tight end was favorably lined up 1-on-1 with 5-10 safety Quintin Mikell. Brady recognized the half-foot advantage and threw accordingly. Gronkowski didn't stay open for the 9-yard push, however; three Panthers grabbed at the tight end and hung on for dear life. No problem. Gronk dragged the trio into the end zone with him. Touchdown.
SMOOTHEST EVASION TECHNIQUE
You can call what Cam Newton did in the third quarter a scramble. It was so much more, though. The Carolina quarterback, facing a third-and-7 situation, didn't like what developed and went on the run. He was chased down by the likes of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Dont'a Hightower, but artfully ducked and dodged them all over the field for 75 yards. The play was good for a gain of 14. He also stole a good bit of Patriots defensive pride in the process.
SNEAKIEST GOOD HANDS
Give a little love to punter Ryan Allen. Also New England's holder, he had to handle two bad snaps from Danny Aiken. Things looked particularly dicey when the score was tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter. The Patriots' drive fizzled out with an incomplete on third-and-1, but Stephen Gostkowski had just a 26-yard field goal to kick for the lead. Easy, right? Not when the snap gets screwed up and Allen has to replace the ball his kicker is in mid-stride. Somehow, they made it work and Gostkowski barely, barely, got the points. New England went up 20-17.
MOST PAINFUL PENALTY
Of five flags thrown and accepted against New England, the fifth hurt the most. New England was still up 20-17 when Carolina got the ball and almost eight minutes to work with. Newton drove the Panthers to the Patriots' 39, but Mike Tolbert gained just 3 yards on second-and-10. The QB looked to Greg Olsen, who was tangled up with Devin McCourty, on third down. The pass fell incomplete as the pair struggled. Flag on the play. Olsen appeared to sell a holding call by hooking McCourty's arms in his. Questionable? The refs didn't think so. McCourty initiated contact, and even though Olsen hugged his defender back, the receiver was clear of 5 yards. The penalty extended Carolina's drive and the home team took advantage. Five plays later the Panthers scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 25-yard bomb to Ted Ginn Jr.
WILDEST WAY TO FINISH
The Patriots had just 59 ticks on the clock after Carolina took its lead. Surely enough time for Tom Brady to work with, right? Right. New England manipulated the field and the clock well, considering the circumstance, and got down to the Panthers' 18-yard line with 3 seconds left. The final pass had to go to Gronkowski. The Patriots knew it, Carolina knew it, everyone watching knew it. So what did standout linebacker Luke Kuechly do? Wrapped his arms around the tight end in a big bear hug to prevent the touchdown pass. Safety Robert Lester swooped in for the interception. Hang on -- a flag was thrown on what appeared to be clear defensive pass interference. Brady got ready to repeat the play. But he never got the chance. After conferring on the field, the officials picked up the flag and let the interception stand. No explanation was given to head coach Bill Belichick. Brady was furious. And so a great game ended on a controversial call. Bummer.