By Gregory Hunt
Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, the New England Patriots offense moved the ball pretty well against the elite defense of the Carolina Panthers, but it wasn’t enough as a touchdown pass by Carolina quarterback Cam Newton with 59 seconds remaining in the game gave the Panthers a 24-20 victory.
Offense Grade: B-
Early in the game, the Patriots had trouble picking up the Carolina blitz, but after two early sacks, New England quickly neutralized the rush with a series of screen passes. With all of his weapons healthy for the first time this season, quarterback Tom Brady did a terrific job of spreading the ball around. Brady completed passes to seven different receivers.
Running back Stevan Ridley had some impressive runs early in the game, but his second-quarter fumble at the Carolina 12-yard line killed a potential Patriots touchdown and possibly cost New England the game. It was Ridley’s third lost fumble of the season. He was quickly replaced by LeGarrette Blount, but he returned to action in the third quarter and scored a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
After missing eight games with a wrist injury, running back Shane Vereen returned to action Sunday night, and his presence gave the New England offense some extra versatility. He had only one carry for seven yards, but he caught eight passes for 65 yards to be the leading receiver of the game. His only bad play of the night was a dropped pass on New England’s final drive. If he had made that catch, New England would have been at least 12 yards closer to a possible winning touchdown.
Defense Grade: C+
New England’s defense tried frequent blitzes early in the game, but after Newton beat the blitz several times for a touchdown drive on his second possession, the Patriots dialed back the pass rush. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich and defensive end Chandler Jones combined for three sacks.
Cornerback Aqib Talib, as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2008-2012, used to face Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith twice every season, and there appears to be bad blood between the two. After a confrontation with Smith, Talib picked up a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Carolina’s second possession and the Panthers eventually scored a touchdown on that drive. Smith ended up beating Talib on four catches for 62 yards.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington was having an excellent game until he became hurt in the third quarter on Newton’s spectacular 14-yard scramble on a third-and-seven. Newton eluded four Patriots and ran a distance of about 75 yards to pick up that first down. Arrington eventually returned to the game, but he wasn’t nearly as effective, and it was he who gave up the winning touchdown catch to Carolina’s Ted Ginn. It was Ginn’s only catch the entire game.
Special Teams Grade: A
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was 2-for-2 on field goals, and his second-quarter, 42-yarder into a stiff wind may have been his most impressive kick of the season. On his fourth-quarter kick for 26 yards, holder Ryan Allen briefly fumbled the snap, but Allen was able to recover and the kick slipped just inside the left upright.
Outside of his holding duties, Allen didn’t have much to do. He punted only one time for 34 yards, and it was downed by Marquice Cole at the Carolina 10-yard line. Kickoff coverage was excellent. Even when Gostkowski wasn’t able to get the touchback, the Panthers were never able to return the ball beyond their own 17-yard line.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola had a notable punt return in the fourth quarter. With Carolina punting against the wind, Amendola lined up in front of New England’s usual punt returner, Julian Edelman. As he anticipated, the punt was low and short, and this allowed Amendola to make a 13-yard return to the Carolina 39. This set up New England’s go-ahead field goal before Carolina’s game-winning drive.
Coaching Grade: D
Head coach Bill Belichick strangely elected not to use his time outs on defense at the end of the first half when it appeared that New England had an opportunity to get the ball back one last time. Even after New England sacked Newton to set up a third-and-seven at the Carolina 14 with 44 seconds remaining, Belichick allowed the clock to run out. New England was scheduled to receive the ball at the beginning of the second half, so this may have factored into his decision, but it still felt like a lost opportunity.
Late in the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a questionable pass play on a third-and-one from the Carolina eight-yard line. New England’s power running game had been working well the entire second half, so it was strange to go away from that game at such a critical juncture. By settling for a field goal, New England gave Carolina an opportunity for the winning touchdown.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.