CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Walt Coleman never would have let this happen.
The Patriots were beaten by the Carolina Panthers, 24-20, on “Monday Night Football”. And they forever will say they were robbed.
It was a night that tested our faith, and everything that we know to be true about Patriot Football.
We know that the Patriots always win (five straight, 10 of 11) on “Monday Night Football.” They always win after a bye week (10 of their last 13). They always win in the second half of the regular season (24-1 the last three years). They always outsmart and outplay the other guys in November. They always cruise to the division title and a first-round bye and a second-round home game. They always win the coin toss, defer, and crush the enemy with a late first half, early second half “double score.’’ They always break the hearts and spirit of pigskin pretenders. They always get the last call of the game (Walt Coleman, tuck rule, January 2002).
And so we waited for that last flag to go New England’s way. Tom Brady had chucked his 40th and final pass into the end zone and it was clear that Luke Kuechly had Rob Gronkowski wrapped up like King Tut and there was a flag on the field and it looked like the Patriots were going to get one more shot at winning the game. Stand by for Brady to Kenbrell Thompkins for a walkoff TD followed by David Ortiz launching a grand slam into the cop’s station in the right-field bullpen.
No. Not this time. The flag was picked up. No call. We were left with the sight of Brady screaming at a zebra as they came off the field.
“I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that,” said Brady. “But it did and they are going to make a call or they are not going to make a call.”
“I thought it was going to be pass interference,” said Gronk.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he received no explanation as to why the flag was picked up.
“The last time I started asking an official about a call, that was the wrong thing to do, so I have no idea . . . We’ve been down that road before. Didn’t get one tonight. Didn’t get one at the Baltimore game [last season with replacement officials].”
That’s Bill-speak. The rest of us, in Jackie Chiles-speak, were “shocked and chagrined. Mortified and stupefied. Outrageous. A travesty of justice.’’
New England hasn’t been this angry about a ruling against the Patriots since the cheesy unsportsmanlike conduct/pushing call in a loss to the Jets Oct. 20.
The Patriots had just gone 62 yards in 56 seconds and were only 18 yards from paydirt. Brady was shredding the scared Panthers and the Patriots were about to pull off another miracle. But it didn’t happen. While Gronk was being held deep in the end zone by Kuechly, Robert Lester jumped in front and intercepted the pass.
“It’s exactly what we hoped for,’’ said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “We got pressure on the quarterback and our safety was in perfect position to make the play for us.’’
New Englanders begged to differ. This was like losing a World Series game on an obstruction call.
Monday night’s game was one of the biggest sporting events in North Carolina since Michael Jordan left Chapel Hill. You would have thought the Panthers were a first-year franchise, all doe-eyed about this visit from the big, bad Patriots.
Carolina players, coaches, and fans were pumped and jacked. It was Yahoo Squared (didn’t these guys actually play in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Patriots just 10 years ago?) It was hard not to think of the 2012 Houston Texans Frauds who came to Foxborough wearing letter sweaters with an 11-1 record. Those Texans were routed in hideous fashion and have never been the same.
Charlotte hadn’t hosted a Monday night game in five seasons. This was billed as a “return to relevance.’’ The game was front-page news in the Charlotte Observer and the cover of the sports section featured an ESPN camera with a big headline asking, “Ready For Prime Time?’’ The Panthers wore black jerseys and urged fans to dress in Johnny Cash casual. Most complied.
Before the furious finish, we had 59 minutes of blood-and-thunder football, highlighted by a mano-a-mano featuring Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and Carolina wideout Steve Smith. Back from a three-game layoff (hip injury) Talib was burned on a 42-yard over-the-top pass and objected to Smith’s hot-dogging after the catch. When Smith made a subsequent 5-yard catch on the same touchdown drive, Talib grabbed Smith by the leg and refused to let go after the whistle. Talib looked a little like Jeff Van Gundy holding on to Alonzo Mourning. There was more jawing after just about every play and Carolina took a 7-0 lead on a 9-yard TD pass from Cam Newton to Brandon LaFell.
The Panthers kept the Patriots off the scoreboard in the first quarter. Carolina has allowed only 8 first-quarter points in 10 games. Carolina led, 10-0, in the second. After the Patriots tied it at 10 early in the third, Newton submitted a highlight-reel run for the ages, eluding six tacklers and scrambling for a 14-yard gain. ESPN-Info calculated that Newton actually ran 75 yards for the 14-yard gain. You will see this one a lot in the days, weeks, and years to come.
Back and forth they went. With 59 seconds left on the clock, the Panthers took the final lead on a 25-yard TD pass from Newton to Ted Ginn Jr. Kyle Arrington was badly beaten on the play.
“We left too much time on the clock,” said Newton. “With Tom Brady, I’ve seen that story before. I’ve read that book before.”
Going for his 39th career comeback win, Brady came back and threw 12 passes in less than a minute. The last one was picked, while Gronk was held.
“We are relevant,’’ said Rivera.
“We were robbed,’’ said the Patriots.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.