CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the second time this season, the officials became the story line at the end of a Patriots loss.
Last month it was the push called on a New York Jets long field goal try, giving them a shorter — and more manageable – attempt. Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, it was a flag that was picked up, representing a potential game-changing penalty that wasn’t called.
On the final play of the Panthers’ 24-20 win over the Patriots, Tom Brady was throwing for Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, but instead was intercepted by Panthers safety Robert Lester.
Gronkowski was a few feet behind the play, appearing to be held by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. A flag was thrown on the play, but it was picked up, ending the game.
Brady stalked off the field alongside members of the officiating staff, clearly pleading his team’s case, though at that point, with Panthers players and fans celebrating, nothing was going to be done.
“He didn’t say anything,” Brady said of referee Clete Blakeman. “I didn’t really see the play either, so I don’t know whether it was a good call or a bad call. But we had plenty of chances. I’m not making any excuses.
“We could have done a better job tonight. When you play a good team on the road you have to play good for 60 minutes and we didn’t. We played OK. Shot ourselves in the foot too many times.”
Gronkowski, who had a 23-yard catch on fourth and 10 to keep the last-gasp drive going, was asked if he was held by Kuechly, the former Boston College standout.
The tight end, who knew he couldn’t say much and clearly was being cautious, paused before answering, and then shrugged his shoulders.
“It just wasn’t completed and there was no flag. There was a flag but it got called back. I don’t even know why they threw it,” he said. “But I’m not here to make excuses. We don’t make excuses. The game is four quarters, not just the last play of the game.”
The non-call wound up overshadowing what was a very good game, one that was won a few minutes earlier by the only play receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. made for the Panthers all night.
With 1:09 to play, Ginn shook loose of cornerback Kyle Arrington and made his first catch of the game at the 19-yard line near the left sideline. Ginn ran past Arrington and over the goal line near the front pylon, giving his team the game-winning points it needed with the 25-yard score.
“When I left the huddle, I just said [to quarterback Cam Newton], ‘Hey man, I’m going to use my hands and I’m going to try to get open. I know the game’s on the line,’” Ginn said. “I just tried to be that first read for him, and I was. He delivered the rock and I just turned and tried to make something happen and luckily I turned it into a touchdown.”
“Just didn’t make the tackle,” Arrington said quietly of the play. “Just didn’t make the tackle.”
The Panthers, now 7-3, beat the defending NFC champion 49ers on the road a week earlier, and now have a win against a perennial playoff team in New England, legitimizing their status as a contender in their conference.
They also showed that they could win despite what coach Ron Rivera believed was a sub-par game from their normally dominant defense; the Panthers had allowed a total of just 57 points in their first six wins, and 58 points in their three losses.
On their last possession, the Patriots had 59 seconds and all three timeouts to try to turn the game in their favor. Their first three plays were incomplete passes, but the Brady-to-Gronkowski fourth-down play meant their hopes weren’t dead yet.
A third-down pass-interference call against Carolina also helped.
But their final play, on second and 3 from the 18, was the attempt for Gronkowski and the resulting interception.
New England is also 7-3, and now has slipped to the three seed in the AFC behind the Colts; Indianapolis is also 7-3, but jumped over the Patriots by virtue of their better record in the conference (4-2 vs. 5-2).
And things don’t get easier for the Patriots: Sunday night they host the 9-1 Broncos.
“It’s very disappointing but there’s a lot of football left to be played,” Arrington said. “We can’t keep our heads down. We have to rally with each other and for each other. We have a tough one coming against Denver.”
The sides traded points throughout the second half. The Panthers held a 10-3 halftime lead, but the Patriots tied the game to open the third quarter with an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
The Patriots were so efficient moving the ball on that possession that they didn’t face a third down, getting yardage in good-sized chunks: 11-yard screen to Shane Vereen, 12-yard run from LeGarrette Blount, 9-yard passes to Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, and again to Vereen.
It was a 9-yard touchdown as well, to Gronkowski.
But the Panthers answered back, an amazing 14-yard scramble by Newton highlighting their own long drive, this for 81 yards.
Newton, who has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league on third down this season — his passer rating of 106.0 on the money down is third in the NFL — found his tight end, Greg Olsen, on third and 4 for a 15-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
The Patriots tied the game in the fourth on a Stevan Ridley 1-yard run and then took their only lead of the game on a 26-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
On the Patriots’ second possession, Carolina had two penalties on third down during the drive, keeping it going for New England. The second, a facemask call against defensive end Greg Hardy, who had grabbed at Brady’s facemask, gave the Patriots first down at the 12.
On the next play, the Panthers stopped Ridley for a 1-yard loss; Ridley got the ball again on second down and this time he was stripped of the ball by Kawann Short, with fellow D-lineman Mario Addison recovering the fumble.
It was Ridley’s third fumble of the season. When New England was back on offense, it was Blount, not Ridley, who was in the game at running back.
“I’d like to go without the fumble, to be honest. That’s a personal mistake that could have been avoided,” Ridley said. “The coaches stressed to us that [Carolina] would be going after the ball. To put it on the ground is unacceptable.”
The Patriots’ first possession ended in a Ryan Allen punt when Hardy blew past Nate Solder to sack Brady for a 4-yard loss on third down.
Their final drive of the half started well, with a 23-yard play-action pass to Kenbrell Thompkins, back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch against the Steelers two weeks earlier. They got into Carolina territory on a 17-yard screen to Shane Vereen, active for the first time since Week 1, when he suffered a broken wrist against Buffalo.
But it essentially ended when Logan Mankins was flagged for unnecessary roughness, putting the Patriots in a second-and-25 situation it couldn’t recover from.
A 42-yard field goal from Gostkowski, his 18th consecutive made field goal, put New England on the scoreboard.
Of concern for New England: Brady, whose right hand showed some swelling a couple of weeks ago, seemed to have hurt the hand again early in the game. Cameras showed some blood on the knuckle of his pointer finger, and the quarterback kept the hand in a protective warmer at his waistband whenever he wasn’t handling the ball.
And while the Patriots also got Aqib Talib back – he missed a month with a hip injury – something about playing Panthers’ receiver and former NFC South foe Steve Smith had Talib fired up, with the two going at it all half.
A 15-yard penalty on Talib put Carolina in the red zone, and the Panthers would score the game’s opening touchdown five plays later.