CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It came in a controversial 24-20 loss on “Monday Night Football,” but the Patriots received a productive boost from running back Shane Vereen in his first game in more than two months.
Vereen hadn’t played since breaking his left wrist in the season-opening win at Buffalo, a game in which he rushed for 101 yards and added 58 receiving yards. He was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, and was eligible to play in a game for the first time since the injury on Monday. Earlier in the day, the Patriots officially moved Vereen from injured reserve to the active roster.
He was the offensive star of the game for the Patriots, a silver lining in the loss to the Panthers. Vereen, who had a small black brace on his left wrist, caught a team-high eight passes for 65 yards, and added 7 yards on his only rushing attempt. He was targeted by Tom Brady 11 times, also a team high.
So much for easing Vereen back into the offense. He made the most of his chances. On his nine touches, seven went for first downs, and three came on third downs, extending the drive.
Getting Vereen back — and cornerback Aqib Talib, who had missed the last three games with a hip injury — meant the Patriots needed to come up with some healthy scratches to fill the seven-player inactive list. Safety Steve Gregory (thumb) and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee) had been ruled out on Saturday, and running back Leon Washington (ankle) was downgraded to out on Sunday.
Linebacker Steve Beauharnais, offensive lineman Chris Barker, and Jake Bequette sat out, as did running back Brandon Bolden, perhaps the only mild surprise of the seven inactives. Bolden has been on the injury report with a knee injury, and with Vereen’s return, Patriots coaches apparently determined that his services weren’t needed.
Kenbrell Thompkins, who was inactive against the Steelers, was back on the field, and made the most of his two catches. The first went for 23 yards in the second quarter. The second was good for 37 yards, and set up the game-tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Thompkins caught a pass from Brady in stride, made a spin move, and was finally tackled at the Panthers’ 1-yard line. Stevan Ridley scored on the next play.
Fellow receiver Josh Boyce, who had been inactive the past four games, was also active. Boyce was sent deep to return kickoffs in place of LeGarrette Blount, but didn’t take any of them out of the end zone.
For the second straight game, Ridley lost a fumble. And for the second straight game, the Patriots running back was sent back into the game and scored a rushing touchdown.
Ridley, who now has lost three fumbles on the season, coughed it up early in the second quarter this time, when he was hit by Kawann Short. The fumble killed what had been a promising Patriots’ drive, which started at the 20 and had reached the red zone, with the second-down play starting from the Panthers’ 13.
Unlike the previous game against the Steelers, when Ridley missed no plays, he was benched for 18 snaps on Monday, with most of the rushing attempts in his absence going to Blount. But with the Patriots trailing late in the third quarter, Ridley returned, and had a pair of 5-yard runs. He had four runs on the drive, taking it into the end zone from the 1 to help tie the game at 17.
It was Ridley’s seventh rushing touchdown of the season, and the fifth straight game in which he has scored. Ridley finished with 48 yards on 13 carries.
They’re No. 1
Brady made NFL history simply by taking the first snap on the Patriots’ opening drive. By starting the game, Brady reached 185 career starts, all of them coming under Belichick.
It marks the most starts for the same head coach-quarterback combination in the history of the NFL. Brady had been tied with Dan Marino, who made 184 starts for the Dolphins with Don Shula as the head coach.
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who caught one pass for 2 yards, left with a knee injury and did not return. Other than that, the Patriots didn’t appear to suffer any serious injuries. Cornerback Kyle Arrington left the game in the second quarter, but was back in by the fourth quarter, and was the defensive back in coverage against Ted Ginn Jr. on the Panthers’ winning touchdown.
Turn for the worse
For the first time in 37 games, the Patriots failed to record a takeaway. The 36 straight games of forcing at least one turnover had been the longest active streak in the NFL . . . Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, out for the season with an Achilles’ injury, spent the game on the Patriots’ sideline. Wilfork was wearing a walking boot on his right foot, and gathered the defensive linemen before the game, holding their attention with some motivational words. It’s rare, but not unprecedented, for an injured player to attend a Patriots road game. Wide receiver and special teamer Matthew Slater accompanied the team earlier this year to Atlanta and Cincinnati. The difference is that Wilfork is not able to come back and play this season . . . Former Patriots offensive lineman Pete Brock will receive the 2013 Legends Award Tuesday night at the eighth annual Hockomock Area YMCA Legends Ball, which is being held at Lake Pearl Luciano’s in Wrentham. Brock, who played for the Patriots from 1976-87, is being honored for his commitment to the YMCA and individuals with special needs. Current and former Patriots are expected to attend. include Joe Andruzzi, Troy Brown, Steve Gregory, Steve Grogan, Matt Light, Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich, and Patrick Pass.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.