When this engaging, enraging frontrunner for NFL game of the year was all over ...
.... after the refs beat it hastily off the field as if they'd realized the hills might suddenly have eyes had the final score not favored the home team ....
.... after Tom Brady and unnecessary sidekick Ryan Mallett flagged down two officials and greeted them with language only David Ortiz can get away with on television ...
.... after it was all over but the relentless anti-Patriot schadenfreude, the losing quarterback took the postgame podium after his team's 24-20 loss, measured his words, and told a half-truth.
"I don't know whether it was a good call or a bad call,'' said Brady, who was 27 of 40 for 296 yards and one touchdown. "We shot ourselves in the foot too many times."
The latter half of his statement? Unflinching, undeniable honesty. The Patriots did shoot themselves in the foot time and again against an energetic, athletic Panthers team that has proved its contender bona fides the past two weeks with tight wins over the Niners and Patriots.
Stevan Ridley's fumble – a trio of words that should be a keyboard shortcut for Patriots reporters at this point – cost the Patriots at least three points in the first half, perhaps even a touchdown, which would have been a feat in itself since Carolina has allowed just one first-half TD all season.
Logan Mankins had a knuckleheaded personal foul penalty. Cam Newton, as electrifying as he is insincere, converted third down after third down with his arms and his feet, passing for 209 yards and three touchdowns and running for another 62 yards. Aqib Talib spent more time trying to maim Panthers receiver Steve Smith than he did covering him, and someone needs to write up an oral history, pronto, on that relationship..
Even when the Patriots found their rhythm in the second half, with Brady completing 13 straight passes at one point against Carolina's impressive second-ranked defense, their second-to-last drive, on which they took their first lead at 20-17, could have been more.
Instead of scoring a touchdown, they had to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski with 6 minutes 2 seconds left to play, setting the stage for Carolina's winning drive, capped when Ted Ginn eluded Kyle Arrington after hauling in a Newton pass and scampered into the end zone with 59 seconds remaining.
Still, they had Brady and a healthy Gronkowski. Which means they had a chance.
After methodically marching 62 yards in 56 seconds – including a converted fourth and 10 to Gronkowski for 23 yards – Brady dropped back to pass at the Carolina 18 with three seconds remaining, trying to duplicate the final-play victory he helped pull off in October against the Saints.
Gronkowski headed for the back of the end zone, with Kuechly draped on him so blatantly that Gronk must have had a brief flashback to the after-party for his recent Football 101 Women's Clinic.
Brady's pass was short, picked off behind the goal line by Robert Lester.
There was only a brief celebration by the Panthers, who spotted that bright yellow harbinger on the turf. Was there pass interference? Illegal contact? There was something ... until the flag was picked up, the officials made their escape, and then there wasn't.
In the aftermath, voices such as Steve Young ("Gronk was kept from competing for the ball. That's pass interference") and Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Perreira ("Since the flag was thrown, they should have stayed with the call. There was clear contact before the ball was intercepted") were among a vast consensus who thought there should have been a penalty.
Even Kuechly, the former Boston College star who is a rising force in the NFL, had a tough time keeping a straight face. "They picked up the flag,'' he said, smiling. "So apparently I did all right."
While we half-seriously wait for old Facebook photos of referee Clete Blakeman decked out in Panthers gear to surface, his explanation to pool reporter Mike Reiss of what the officials saw basically boiled down to this: the ball was underthrown and Gronkowski didn't have a chance of catching it. Which is swell and semi-true -- he didn't have a chance of catching it, because Kuechly had made sure of it.
So about the first half of that aforementioned Brady comment? About not knowing whether it was a good call or a bad call? Pure misdirection. You bet Brady knew, which is why he ran down the officials in the aftermath of the waved-off, nothing-to-see-here call and offered these choice words: "That is [expletive] bull. That is unbelievable!"
He was right. And this was one of those times where you wished he'd dropped the diplomatic good-sport persona and said exactly what he was thinking, since the ESPN camera, I suspect unbeknownst to him, had already told us in that colorful language anyway.
Because while the Patriots did blow plenty of chances along the way, that doesn't mean it's just that a last chance to cover for those mistakes should unjustly be taken away. You play poorly, you deserve to lose? Sure, I guess that trope equates to justice. But you play poorly, you deserve to have the rules misused against you without immediate explanation during the most pivotal moment? That's not how it works.
This is twice this season that weird calls (or in this case, a no-call) has cost them in the final moment of a game, the first coming in an OT loss to the Jets. It was popular cliche last night on Twitter -- these things all even out in the end -- but it's really not true. Each is an independent event. Ask Cleveland fans if all things even out in the end.
Maybe it's time for someone with some cachet with the league to speak up. One well-timed, biting, I'm-serious-about-this comment from Brady about how he thought the league was rid of the replacement refs would go a long way toward making sure they get it right the next time a bizarre play occurs with the outcome hanging in the balance.
Which, with the way this odd but still potentially fulfilling Patriots season is going, probably means we should brace for some zebra weirdness Sunday night against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Who knows, maybe the Tuck Rule will come back into our lives again.
Yes, I know it no longer exists. You think that's going to stop these guys from calling it?
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.