The New England Patriots aren't going to win every week; that's just the way it is. And when it all boils down, losing on the road to a hot Carolina team who saw this game as their chance to prove to the world that they are legit contenders really isn't that big of a deal. But you NEVER like to lose (or win, for that matter) on an iffy call, and that's pretty much the only thing that's still lingering with me this morning. I could sit here and keep asking myself the same questions over and over (why did you even bother throwing the flag? It's the last play of the game; if you want to let them play, let them play. But once the flag goes down, how can you just pick it up like that?), but that isn't going to do any good. The Pats lost, that's the way it is, and it's already well past time to put the Panthers behind us and move on to a significantly more important game.
Here's why, other than the final play, this loss doesn't matter all that much.
Non-conference loss. When it's all said and done, I'll take a loss to an NFC team over a loss to an AFC team any day of the week. The only area where this one hurts is in the loss column, but it isn't going to settle any tiebreakers or come into play when it's time to figure out the playoff seeding. Furthermore, the way the schedule plays out overall, the Patriots could very well get some help from the result of some of the other games coming up. If it wasn't for the way the game ended, I'd already be completely over this one.
Solid offense. After a slow start, the Patriots offense really got rolling and became incredibly efficient. They ran it well, they threw well, and Brady went pretty much untouched after taking two early sacks. Even on the last drive of the game when the Pats were in full-on desperation mode, New England was able to move the ball very well against one of the league's best defenses. The Patriots are starting to really click on offense, and not a moment too soon; there are only so many injuries to the defense a team can mask before it all just falls apart.
Patriots still have separation. The AFC East remains a weak division, and the Patriots still have a two game lead over the Jets, who just got absolutely embarrassed by the Bills. At 7-3, New England still has complete control over the division and remains in the drivers seat for a first round bye. Granted, Sunday's game against Denver now becomes even more crucial than it already was, but the Pats have a favorable schedule down the stretch and are still very much in contention for a deep postseason run. Not the end of the world.
Any other quarterback.... Against virtually any other quarterback in the NFL, the Patriots would have won this game. Multiple times they had Cam Newton dead to rights in the backfield, only to have him scramble like only he can and extend the play. You can't prepare for that kind of threat, even with a backup QB as elusive and athletic as Ryan Mallett running the prep team. Newton pretty much won this game on his own by extending plays and making smart decisions - which is exactly why the Panthers drafted him first overall. That isn't something New England is likely to face again this year, and it's the kind of thing that, when done well, is virtually impossible to prepare for.
Motivation game. I'm not sure if anyone saw it or not, as there weren't very many cameras around, but Tommy B was none too pleased with the way this one ended. Neither was Bill Belichick, Aqib Talib, Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, or even Ryan Mallett. A fair number of Patriots tried very hard to get an explanation from the refs as to how the game finished, but had trouble getting one. And while there's nothing they can do about that game, there's a whole lot they can do about the upcoming one. New England is about to come home for a Sunday Night game against the team that the whole world simply can't worship enough, and they are coming home pissed. I have been stressing about the Broncos game all season, but now I'm not nearly as worried as I was on Monday morning. The Pats rarely lose two in a row, they even more rarely lose at home, and they don't take kindly to curious flags that end up taking away from the game itself. Time to use this loss as motivation and remind the whole world that the Manning vs. Brady debate only exists on paper.