CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers held on to beat the Patriots, 24-20, thanks in part to a controversial non-call as the game concluded.
Was it pass interference? The officials say no. Was it holding? I say yes. Is there more for the Patriots to hang their hats on after such a disappointing loss? Of course. Let's take a look at the takeaways:
1. The controversy – There are two trains of thought following the picked-up flag. One of which is, obviously, that the flag should not have been so easily dismissed, given the implications for the game at that time.
(Just FYI, I'm not a member of the "rules only apply during certain times" cabal. That's just cheap.)
The other is that the officials failed to recognize that there was another significant penalty that occurred: defensive holding. How is it possible, given the video evidence and the immediate nature of the flag, that the officials could pick up a flag after the kind of bear hug Luke Kuechly put on Rob Gronkowski? Answer: It's pretty absurd. There was no other penalty even considered, according to the pool report.
Wherever you stand on the call, it doesn't look good.
2. Broken containment and coverage – When the Patriots look back on Monday night's loss, they'll most likely be concerned with the way Cam Newton was able to get into the second and third levels of the defense without a Patriots jersey around and also with the breakdown in coverage at the end of the game. As the pocket collapsed on Newton, there was no one to spy on the athletic quarterback as he scrambled and ran for 62 yards to lead all rushers.
"It's just a tough situation where you got to contain a quarterback that can run the ball, that can throw the ball," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "So it's our job as a defensive line to keep him in the pocket. So if we don't do that, bad things happen. And I hold myself accountable for a quarterback that scrambles. That's on everybody on the d-line. We're not supposed to let that happen."
The Patriots played mostly in a 3-4 with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones operating as the outside linebackers. So containment was huge with a big emphasis on those two players. But the Patriots also relied on inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower to be able to provide coverage in passing situations, something they are not necessarily well versed to do.
And then there's the matter of the go-ahead touchdown. Kyle Arrington found himself beat on a hitch route with no immediate help on the inside, allowing for Ted Ginn Jr.'s 25-yard score.
"I just got to make that tackle, I just got to make that tackle," Arrington explained. "We were in Cover 1 so he ran a simple hitch route. Cam [Newton] just threw it inside, so as [Ginn Jr.] came back he came back into it. I just have to make that tackle."
There were no excuses for the veteran cornerback and for the team. But that still doesn't explain the lack of help.
3. Shane Vereen's career day – Vereen returned after missing the past nine games with a broken wrist. He looked like there was nothing wrong with him despite wearing a black guard over his hand while catching a career-high eight passes for 65 yards. He was an integral part of the team's offense.
"I didn't really have any expectations," Vereen said. "When my number was called, I just wanted to go out there and do what I could. That's about how I took the game."
Vereen worked the Patriots' third-down running back role to perfection, playing as seamlessly as had been envisioned for the speedy young back when he was drafted in 2011. That was a huge positive for the Patriots.
4. Aqib Talib's fiery matchup with Steve Smith – Talib returned for his first game in three weeks, but he might as well have sat out Monday's game. While competing with the loquacious Steve Smith, a receiver known for dishing out verbal jabs and provoking his opponents, he found himself all hot and bothered after giving up two big receptions, including a 42-yard pass.
Talib went so far as to continue to hold Smith's leg after bringing him down on a first-down conversion, causing a tussle between the two sides and a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. They would continue to tussle and jaw at each other for the rest of the game until the Patriots cornerback left with a hip injury in the fourth quarter, probably the same one that had kept him out the previous three weeks.
Smith finished with four receptions for 62 yards on six targets. It was apparent he won the matchup between the two.
5. Tom Brady was at his best – Had Brady brought the Patriots back with 59 seconds left and 80 yards of field in front of him, he would've recorded his 39th career fourth-quarter comeback. It would've been the icing on what otherwise was a highly efficient performance. Prior to the final drive, Brady had been 25 of 29 passing. He finished with 296 yards passing and a touchdown on 29 of 40 passing, getting the Patriots down to the Panthers' 18-yard line before the game's final play, an interception to Robert Lester with a questionable no-call. That's nothing to hang your head about.