CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The body language said as much as the scoreboard. After he watched Benjamin Watson fumble away the Patriots' last chance yesterday afternoon, Tom Brady stood with his hands on his hips, then jogged slowly to the sideline with his head down and took a sip of water. The long, hot Sunday was over and the rerun wasn't going to look any better in an air-conditioned film room.
''Losing sucks," the losing quarterback said, after the Panthers had made a 27-17 meal out of their star-spangled visitors inside
Especially when you're the three-time champs and you're on the road and you're playing a team that dropped its home opener to New Orleans, a team greatly affected by Hurricane Katrina. ''The way we played today, we couldn't beat anybody," Brady said.
Not gaining 39 yards on the ground. Not taking a dozen penalties. Not giving up 233 yards in returns. Not fumbling twice. How did the Patriots lose? Brady almost ran out of fingers counting the ways.
''The execution. The passing game. There were too many penalties. We didn't run the ball very well," he said. ''It was all the way around. It was every position. I know it starts with the quarterback. I didn't play well enough to win today."
His statistics were respectable enough -- 23 completions in 44 attempts for 270 yards and a back-of-the-end-zone touchdown to Daniel Graham (Brady's 100th in the regular season) that got the Patriots on the board first.
But Brady also committed two miscues -- a second-quarter interception (his first in 158 attempts) and a third-quarter fumble -- that led to 10 Carolina points, which proved to be the margin of victory. ''Just frustration," said Brady, who was one of the last players to emerge from the showers. ''Frustration that I didn't do my part. I've got to do better."
From the day's first snap, when tackle Matt Light false-started, everything was out of rhythm for Brady and his offense. There were more false starts, half a dozen in all. Running plays that were smothered before they ever got started. Dropped balls and passes that fell incomplete. Some, Brady conceded, were errant throws. ''But the passing game is about everybody being in synch and everyone doing their part," he said, ''and for my part, I've got to do a lot better."
The Panthers defense, which ran itself legless and breathless trying to get to Brady two Super Bowls ago, made it a point of running him to ground yesterday.
''A couple of times, they caught us, but other than that I think the D-line did a great job of rushing in there," said linebacker Will Witherspoon, whose interception of a ball intended for Troy Brown set up John Kasay's 51-yard field goal that put Carolina up, 10-7. ''We got in his face."
All afternoon, the Panthers were pushing Brady's offensive linemen back into him. All afternoon, they came in numbers. ''They blitzed linebackers, they blitzed strong corners, weak corners, strong safeties, weak safeties," Brady said. ''They blitzed everyone."
Brady's fumble came off a blitz, with defensive end Mike Rucker coming around and slapping the ball out of the quarterback's hand and Julius Peppers lugging it to the New England 12. ''The ball left my hand and my palm was open and the ball went backwards and it's a fumble," Brady said. ''They made a good play and we didn't."
Next thing the Patriots knew, it was 27-17 and the day was rapidly slipping away. ''You look at the scoreboard and you realize that you're down 10 and there's not that much time," Brady mused. ''It wasn't very good. That's what you expect if you don't play well. You're going to lose."
The Patriots hadn't played these people since there was a trophy and diamond rings on the line in Houston. That game belongs to the archives now. This one was a blunt reminder that time and the NFL move on. Next Sunday it's a visit to Pittsburgh, where the hosts have short tempers and long memories.
''It doesn't get any easier," Brady observed.
Certainly not if the Patriots play this way again. ''We've got to improve," their quarterback declared. ''Things don't correct themselves. You've got to go out there and work hard to correct them. That's what we've got to do, starting tomorrow."