CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Patriots had already authored one improbable last-second victory this season, and somehow had positioned themselves 18 yards away from another.
Trailing the Carolina Panthers by 4 points, with 3 seconds left in the game, and after two timeouts had been called, Tom Brady had one final play. When the clock finally hit zero, it was initially met by confusion, followed by two vastly different reactions: Exasperation from the Patriots, celebration by the Panthers.
There was no tap-dance touchdown this time. The ball was caught in the end zone, same as last month against the Saints. But the player clutching it wore a black Panthers jersey.
What made it worse: A penalty flag thrown by back judge Terrence Miles gave the Patriots a temporary reprieve, but the officials’ decision to pick up the yellow flag and not enforce a penalty — it was apparently determined that the pass to Rob Gronkowski was not catchable — left the Patriots seeing red and feeling blue.
Brady’s last-gasp attempt at a win was a pass intended for Gronkowski. It was intercepted by Robert Lester, who stepped in front of Gronkowski and jumped up in end zone for an easy pick.
Gronkowski, though, was being held by linebacker Luke Kuechly, a second-year Panther who starred at Boston College. Kuechly appeared to impede Gronkowski’s ability to try for the catch, and the flag was thrown. After a brief discussion, though, referee Clete Blakeman announced that there was no penalty.
“The back judge saw that there was contact and the defender was not playing the ball, and that led him to throw for defensive pass interference, was the initial call,” Blakeman said.
“There were two officials that came in. There was a discussion at that point as to, the, in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location. It was determined that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end, that the ball was coming in underthrown. There was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.
“You never like to end the game with some controversy like that on a call, but I’m pleased that our officiating crew got together and communicated. Ultimately, I believe we got it right.”
It was a key decision. A pass interference call on Kuechly would have given the Patriots one play from the Panthers 1-yard-line. If the call was defensive holding, the ball would have been placed at the Carolina 13.
Instead, the game was over.
“I didn’t really see the play, so I don’t know whether it was a good call or a bad call,” said Brady, who was seen walking off the field and arguing with Blakeman about the reversal. “I didn’t see it. I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that. I think there are plenty of plays we could have made. But it did, and they are going to make a call or they are not going to make a call.”
The Patriots had fallen behind with 59 seconds left on a 25-yard TD pass from Cam Newton to Ted Ginn Jr. With all three timeouts left, the Patriots took over at their 20, in need of a touchdown. A field goal meant nothing.
Brady hit Gronkowski for a 23-yard gain on fourth-and-10. A completion to Danny Amendola of 11 yards pushed the ball across midfield, and a 10-yard pass interference penalty on Melvin White set the Patriots up at the Carolina 36 with 10 seconds left. An 11-yard pass to Shane Vereen and a 7-yarder to Aaron Dobson left the Patriots with one last chance.
Like many, Gronkowski was unclear about what happened in those final few frantic seconds.
“They threw a flag and then they ended up waving it off. I thought it was going to be pass interference,” Gronkowski said. “We don’t make excuses. I’m not trying to sit here and make an excuse that he held me at the end of the game.”
Bill Belichick was hoping for some kind of explanation from the officials. He said he never got one.
“There was no explanation given to me,” the Patriots coach said. “The officials ran off the field.”
Asked what he saw on the game’s final play, Belichick was short.
“The same thing you saw.”