CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers lost two starting offensive linemen in the first quarter.
Their best player, Christian McCaffrey, was back off a long layoff and scheduled to be on a pitch count.
Their starting quarterback was Sam Darnold, who has an argument as the NFL's worst quarterback over the last month and a half.
When it came to Sunday's matchup between the Patriots and Panthers, iron sharpening iron it was not.
But in dispatching Matt Rhule's club easily, 24-6, the Patriots did what good teams do: bury the opposition when it is ripe to be buried.
And they did it the way in which they were expected to from the start of the season -- the way they did against the Chargers a week ago -- with defense, and an offense that didn’t spoil the party.
Of course it wasn't perfect. And the grades will reflect that. The Patriots had six penalties, five of which came in the first quarter. They turned it over twice and Mac Jones was sacked twice.
But Bill Belichick's group created three turnovers of its own. J.C. Jackson had two picks, including a pick-six to break the game open in the third quarter. They allowed just 3.4 yards per carry. Darnold ghost memes spread like wildfire on social media.
Jamie Collins, who snared the third Patriots pick of the game, arrived to the team in early October, when it sat at 1-3. A month later, they're 5-4 and only a half game behind the Bills for first place in the AFC East. What had changed about this group in that time, he was asked? How have they turned their season around?
"It's just the season," he said. "It's a long season. No matter how you start, it's how you finish. It's how you go through what you're going through and come out the other side. Guys don't blink ... They don't blink. Whatever happens happens. We keep our heads down, and we're still fighting."
Let’s get to the grades ...
The stat line here was relatively predictable: 12-for-18 for 139 yards, a touchdown and a pick.
The Panthers defense was one of the best in football, after all. Jones did enough, though, including finding his running backs for explosive pass plays that helped lead to touchdowns. His 41-yard dump-off to Rhamondre Stevenson was not within the design of the play, Jones said after the game, but as an off-script decision it was an excellent one.
Later he hit Brandon Bolden for a 28-yarder down the sideline with linebacker Shaq Thompson in coverage. That drive was polished off by a quick-hitting seven-yard score to Hunter Henry. All Jones had to do from there was take care of it.
Now ... the bad? His interception to Stephon Gilmore looked like a decision that was predetermined. When Jakobi Meyers got bumped off his route by a Panthers linebacker, Jones threw it anyway and Gilmore ended up with one of the easiest interceptions he’ll ever have.
Jones also was running the controls when the Patriots were called for a delay of game infraction before the first play of their second drive. Hard to blame Jones for being loose with the football when he got croaked on a strip sack, but the plan for the Patriots all game long was to have the ball out quickly -- on screens, short throws and sprint-outs -- and Jones hesitated before having the football jarred loose for his second turnover.
"Definitely feel like I could do better," he said. "I just have to look at myself in the mirror and figure out what I can do better. But, I don't think we quit and we just tried to play the full 60-minutes to the best of our ability. I think it’s just a great example of a good team win."
Running back: A-
This group did it all on Sunday. Stevenson flashed as a receiver and showed just how difficult he can be to bring down in open space. Brandon Bolden was patient as a runner and showed good vision to be able to take advantage of holes created by the offensive line. Damien Harris scored at the goal line with the Patriots opting to go light personnel-wise.
Both Stevenson and Harris had to leave the game with concussions, which means Bolden could be in line for even more work next week than he’s already taken on. He’s remained a core special teamer despite taking over for James White as the offense’s sub back. He also played as a versatile offensive weapon Sunday, talking the field with Stevenson in “Pony” groupings where both backs would align in the backfield or with Bolden deployed as a receiver detached from the formation.
"He has a big role -- pass protection, route running, some of the carries that he’s taken -- he’s done a good job and he’s still continued to keep his role in the kicking game which has been good as well," Belichick said. "We’ve had good depth in the backfield. Some years we’ve had to use it, some years we haven’t, but when we’ve had it, generally those guys have stepped up and done a good job for us, going all the way back to [Cordarrelle Patterson] in 2018, we needed him during a point in the season.
"But yeah, Brandon has stepped up every week, and Rhamondre, and obviously Damien, and J.J. [Taylor] last week, so hopefully those guys will continue to come through for us."
The Patriots rushed for 4.3 yards per carry (154 yards total) before Brian Hoyer’s clock-killing kneel downs to end the game.
Four catches. Forty-two yards. That was it from this unit on Sunday. Kendrick Bourne had three catches. Jakobi Meyers had one. Nelson Agholor wasn’t targeted. The entire game was centered around the run and Mac Jones getting the football out quickly. It was going to be hard for Jones to have any time to find wideouts down the field since he had Carolina’s Brian Burns and Hasson Reddick breathing down his neck consistently.
But four catches?
One of them (Meyers’ lone grab) was bobbled and stopped short of a first down on third down. This game highlighted the unusual scenario in which the Patriots find themselves, without a water-bug, get-open-quick style of slot receiver. Meyers also had a false start in this one that docked the group’s grade.
Tight end: C-
Hunter Henry’s touchdown was a pretty simple pitch and catch, but the ball came out on time, Henry boxed out his defender, and the result was a rookie quarterback finding space where there’s not often space to be found in the red zone.
But as a group, Patriots tight ends combined for just three grabs for 23 yards. Jonnu Smith added a run for four yards and later left the game with a shoulder injury. The gaffe of the game from this group appeared to be with Henry chipping Brian Burns at the line of scrimmage. Off the snap, he gave Burns a shot. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn looked that way, then looked back inside to help Ted Karras. Henry then shoved Burns away from Wynn, and when Wynn tried to recover to check Burns, he was late. Jones got popped. Fumble.
Should Jones have had the ball out more quickly on that play? Should Wynn have bailed on helping Karras to get into position to stonewall Burns after Henry’s chip? Should Henry have chipped Burns differently? All three? Henry had a false-start penalty that dinged this grade, too.
Offensive line: C
This group did enough for the Patriots to take advantage of a Carolina weakness. The Panthers were a top-five defense in sacks and passing yards allowed going into Sunday. They were 22nd in terms of rush yards allowed per carry. The running game hasn’t been their forte. The Patriots answered by rattling off over 5.0 yards per carry through the first half and helping Harris find the end zone for a goal-line score one week removed from some questionable goal-line play-calling in Los Angeles.
Pass-protection, however, was an issue. Mike Onwenu allowed Reddick to get into the backfield unimpeded in the first quarter, which led to a Jones sack. Ted Karras tried to pick up Reddick late (as did Harris), but they weren’t quick enough. Later Wynn and Henry combined to let Burns rattle Jones’ bones.
Those were the two biggest shots Jones had to absorb, but the protection was understood to be an issue all game. That’s how the game was called, at least. The Patriots knew they had their hands full on the edges, and they did.
Wynn’s false start and Karras’ hold on back-to-back plays in the first quarter don’t help this grade, either.
"We did some things to hurt ourselves early," David Andrews said, "but really played hard, and we had a couple of big drives to get some points. Obviously, the defense played great. It feels good to come down here and get a win against an NFC team and now we go back and get ready for a big one this week."
Special teams: B
Gunner Olszewski was having himself a nice little day before he was knocked from the game with a concussion. He had two punt returns for 35 yards -- the second of which ended his day -- and a kick return for 30 yards. Jakobi Meyers filled in and returned just one punt for seven yards. Nick Folk made one of two kicks (he missed a 54-yarder late) and all three point-after attempts.
Cody Davis and Matthew Slater both made impactful tackles in coverage, and Jake Bailey knocked two punts inside the Carolina 20. Bailey’s first boot of the day -- on a fourth-and-short snap near midfield -- bounded into the end zone for a touchback. Not what he was looking for there, but the wind was whipping early on, and perhaps he overcompensated. He got better as the game went on and contributed to this week’s solid grade.
Defensive line: A-
Christian Barmore wanted to make a statement early. One of the coaching points for the game was to rally to the football and gang tackle. So when he had the opportunity to chase to the sideline and get into the mix, he didn’t hesitate. Even if it meant body-slamming two of his teammates in the process. From there he was a consistently-disruptive force, pressuring Sam Darnold, getting his hands into passing lanes, and showing power in the running game. Barmore had initial pressure on Darnold’s pick-six.
"He’s worked extremely hard," Belichick said. "I’ve got to give that kid a lot of credit. He comes in early. He stays late. He works on his flexibility, his strength, his technique. He’s really applied himself and he’s just gotten better and better every week in the running game, in the passing game, more discipline, use of hands, recognition of plays. He’s done a good job for us and he’s a big man."
Deatrich Wise, Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy all had pressures and recorded run-stuffs. It was a party and everyone up front for the Patriots was invited. It helped that the Panthers lost their starting center and left tackle early in the game, but any time a group can hold an opposing offense to 3.4 yards per carry, that’s a successful day.
Matt Judon was a force once again. He pressured Darnold on both of Jackson’s picks, and he picked up a sack late in the game with a quick inside move. He also drew a holding penalty. Kyle Van Noy had two pass breakups and a pressure while Dont’a Hightower had a pair of pressures and drew a taunting penalty that cost the Panthers 15 yards. Josh Uche also put a hit on Darnold to contribute to this group’s day.
Meanwhile, Jamie Collins ruined a drive with a tackle for loss on a short Christian McCaffrey reception which was followed up immediately by a wildly high-degree-of-difficulty catch that went down as Darnold’s third pick.
"The play Jamie made," Belichick said, "I don't know how many players in the league could make that play. Not very many. That was a tremendous play."
"To me, I’m not really surprised," Dont’a Hightower said. "It’s almost expected when you see a dude who’s catching field goals out of the air and stuff. It’s great to have him back. A lot of the guys being back, they would always hear stories about ‘Tweet’ or Jamie. To have him here and to show the work ethic and stuff, and come in and make huge plays the way he did. I think he made like all three plays on that series. I love to have him, I’m glad he’s here."
Jackson’s day was one to remember. Even if he didn’t exactly feel like remembering it at his postgame press conference when asked for his perspective on things.
"You want me to take you back through the whole play? You can watch it on the internet,'' he said. "I make plays. I'm out there. You can go watch it on the internet. I can't take you back through the whole play. I made a good read in zone coverage. I had my eyes back at the quarterback and the ball. That's what I do, man."
Jackson added: "That was a hell of a feeling because that was my first career touchdown in the NFL. That was an amazing feeling. I need to get more of those."
Jackson missed two practices leading up to the game with what he called strep throat. He didn’t think he’d be able to play in the game, but he returned to practice on Friday.
"Yeah, I talked to him about that," Belichick said with a smile. "I hope that’s not a sign of things to come -- to think that we don’t have to practice and then go out there and be a star of the game.
"But J.C. played well and honestly when you miss a couple of days like that, if you’ve had all the other ones that lead up to it then those aren’t as -- they’re important, but you have a better chance of overcoming it because of all the practices that you’ve bankrolled.
"But it was a great job by him. He came out there on Friday and he was on things and actually had a good day on Friday. He practiced well and then obviously had a couple big plays today, a couple of which -- especially the first one -- came with some pressure but he made a great play on a great run. When I saw Robby Anderson chasing him, I wasn’t sure how that was going to come out because I know Robby can go, but J.C. beat him to the goal line so that shows you what he can do too."
Jackson now has five picks on the season, and the one common thread connecting them all? The Jets. Of course. He’s picked off Zach Wilson twice, Mike White once and now Darnold -- Jets quarterback from 2018-2020 -- twice more.
Jackson noted that the Patriots have been more of a zone coverage team in recent weeks. While he still views the team’s identity as being a man-to-man group, they’ve been willing to adjust to optimize their game plans.
The reasons why zone may be the answer lately? One would be personnel. The Patriots lost Jonathan Jones for the season. Stephon Gilmore plays elsewhere now. They may not feel they have the horses in coverage to mirror wideouts all over the field on a consistent basis. The Patriots have also seen a couple of mobile quarterbacks each of the last two weeks in Darnold and Justin Herbert. Zone helps against runners at that position because defensive backs can keep their eyes on the backfield when they’re not locked onto one specific assignment in coverage.
Jalen Mills had a pass breakup and Myles Bryant continued to show up positively with a massive hit on DJ Moore which kept Moore on the turf for several moments.
Darnold was held to 5.2 yards per pass attempt and an abysmal 26.7 rating. His receivers combined for five catches for 40 yards on 13 targets.