CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Patriots’ defense stood strong against last-minute drives against the Jets and Falcons this season, keeping them off the scoreboard and preserving Patriots’ victories.
Monday night against Carolina was supposed to be no different.
“We had a lot of energy. We knew we were going to get a stop,” safety Duron Harmon said.
Except the same problems that hampered the defense through most of the game came back to bite them in the end, and the result was a 24-20 loss.
The Patriots couldn’t stop the Panthers on third down, couldn’t contain Cam Newton in the pocket, and couldn’t deal with the Panthers’ speed, with Ted Ginn Jr. blowing past Kyle Arrington for the game-winning 25-yard touchdown.
The Panthers marched 83 yards in 13 plays, converting three third downs and milking 5:33 off the clock. It was the theme of the night for the Patriots’ defense, which allowed touchdown drives of 81, 83, and 90 yards.
“If you look at the whole game, just too many long drives, extended drives,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “Frustrating, tough loss because you put a lot of time into this one preparing. Got to give credit when credit’s due. They beat us.”
Two truths revealed themselves in Monday’s game. For one, Newton is a bona fide superstar. He slayed Bill Belichick’s defense in a way the eight previous quarterbacks couldn’t, completing 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, ending the Patriots’ takeaway streak at 36 games. He also was Superman with his feet, rushing seven times for 62 yards. He had a phenomenal 14-yard third-down run in the third quarter in which he zigzagged 75 yards, and had a crucial 15-yard scramble on third and 6 on the final drive.
“We can’t let those scramble plays happen,” Ninkovich said. “That’s on me, that’s on the D-line. We just have to do a better job going forward.”
The Panthers kept the chains moving all night, converting 8 of 11 third downs in a variety of ways – with clutch passes, Newton scrambles, and Patriot penalties.
“One time it’s something short, the next time it’s a scramble or a penalty or something,” Ninkovich said. “Mentally, you just want to get off the field.”
The second truth is that the injuries finally caught up with the Patriots’ defense. They have been able to overcome the losses of two of their best run stoppers in Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. But the secondary was depleted by the end of the game, and that’s trouble in a passing league, especially with Newton needing to march down the field for the winning score.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard missed the game with a knee injury and strong safety Steve Gregory was out with a broken thumb. Aqib Talib left the game late in the fourth quarter after aggravating his hip injury and Kyle Arrington played through a leg or groin injury that took him out of the game briefly in the second half.
On the Panthers’ game-winning play, the Patriots’ secondary consisted of two rookies (Harmon, Logan Ryan), a gimpy Arrington, fifth cornerback Marquice Cole, and safety Devin McCourty. That’s the JV Patriots, not the varsity squad that entered the game No. 7 in the league in points allowed.
They had too many unfamiliar names and role players needing to step up in key situations at the end. The Patriots, to their credit, refused to blame injuries for holding them back Monday night.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the younger guys or the depth,” said McCourty, who was flagged for defensive holding on Greg Olsen on third and 7 on the final drive. “We’ve just got to play better overall.”
“We’ve got a lot of guys playing through stuff,” Arrington added. “There’s no excuse. It’s Week 11, everybody’s banged up.”
It’s possible the Panthers were just a bad matchup for the Patriots. The Panthers entered the game No. 2 in the league in time of possession, averaging 33:21 per game, and while they only held it for 29:14 on Monday night, they certainly grinded the clock and wore down the Patriots’ depleted defense.
The Panthers only had six true possessions (not counting a kneel-down at the end of the first half), and scored points on four of them. Their scoring drives lasted nine, 12, 13, and 13 plays, and each went for at least five minutes. Their 81-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter took 8:21 off the clock, with the Patriots unable to get Newton to the ground or slow the aerial attack.
The Panthers also had a lot more speed at wide receiver than the Patriots have seen this year. Steve Smith, a tiny, speedy receiver, was a terrible matchup for the long, lanky Talib — much like the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson was for Talib in the preseason, when Jackson burned Talib for a long touchdown. Smith had four catches for 62 yards, including a 42-yarder to set up the Panthers’ first touchdown.
Brandon LaFell, who had seven catches for 59 yards, was too fast for Ryan as LaFell caught seven passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. And Ginn was too fast for Arrington, slipping right past him for the winning score.
“His speed got him to the end zone,” Newton said. “And that’s what this team is full of — playmakers that have the ability to make big plays.”
Or Monday night’s game could be the start of a troubling trend. The Patriots better hope that Talib’s injury, which knocked him out of the previous three games, isn’t serious. And that Arrington is ready to play Sunday. And that maybe Dennard can play through his knee injury, and Gregory can possibly play with a cast.
There is no time to sulk for this Patriots defense. Peyton Manning and the high-flying Broncos come to Gillette Stadium in just five days.
The Patriots’ defense carried the team through the first nine games as the offense struggled with injuries. But as Monday night’s loss showed, Brady and the offense might have to return the favor over the final six games.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.