Well, how just a few seconds changes the tune of a post-game recap.
I was prepared to write a recap on how two very good teams played a great game, but how the Panthers just barely edged the Patriots out. I was prepared to write how the Patriots played perhaps their best offensive game of the season, despite the low point total. I was prepared to criticize the coaching and containment on defense.
And while all those things will still hold true, it's the final play of the game that will be what people remember most. Trailing 24-20 with six seconds left, Tom Brady threw a pass down the seam to Rob Gronkowski. The pass was underthrown, but Gronkowski was face-guarded by Luke Kuechly and literally tackled in the back of the end zone. The back judge threw a flag for pass interference and it looked like the Patriots were going to be set up with one try to win the game from the one yard line.
Instead, the officials picked up the flag, with no explanation given. Rob Gronkowski was driven backwards with no chance to get back to the football. He probably wouldn't have made the catch, but it was as obvious of a pass interference as you can get. It would be one thing if the penalty was missed and no flag thrown. But the flag was thrown. And the official with the best view of the play threw the flag, and it was inexplicably picked up. There is no excuse for such terrible refereeing. The Patriots deserved a chance to gain that one yard and win the football game.
That being said, this was actually a great football game. The Patriots offense moved the ball up and down the field. On each and every drive, they picked up multiple first downs and moved the ball deep into Panthers territory. Yet, two things kept the Patriots from a high point total. The first was the fact that the Patriots only possessed the ball seven times. The second was that they shot themselves in the foot several times. A miscommunication led to a sack on their opening drive, a Stevan Ridley fumble ended a red zone opportunity, the Patriots failed to convert on a 3rd and 1 in the 4th quarter in the red zone forcing them to settle for a field goal.
But make no mistake about it, the Patriots were excellent on offense. They consistently moved the ball up and down the field on the Panthers, who have one of the league's elite defense. The Patriots were relentless in changing up their personnel groupings, create mismatch after mismatch. Having Shane Vereen back was just as critical to the offense as anyone could have hoped. Tom Brady, if possible, was just as sharp as he was against the Steelers in week nine.
Defensively, things weren't so great for the Patriots. They did an excellent job stuffing the Panthers running attack between the tackles, but that's where the positives end. Aqib Talib was consistently beat by a aging Steve Smith on the outside. The Patriots couldn't contain Cam Newton in the pocket, leading to two first down runs by the quarterback on 3rd and long situations in the second half (both drives resulted in Panthers' touchdowns). The Patriots couldn't make any adjustments to contain Newton. The pass rush was also almost non-existent, and the defense couldn't get a turnover despite getting their hands on several Newton throws. Poor coaching and execution all around.
Overall, as painful as the final result is, especially when considering the call, this isn't a bad loss. The Patriots were on the road, against a very good NFC team, and played some of their best football of the year on offense. And for those keeping track at home, yes, this is the Patriots second loss of the season on a highly questionable call. But I think I can speak for most Patriots fans when I say that they'll be happy with bad breaks now if the good breaks come for the Patriots in the playoffs.
And who knows, perhaps these two teams meet again on a February evening in the not-so-distant future.