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NFL: New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time all season — and the first time since September 2020, in fact — the New England Patriots have a winning record. The team of head coach Bill Belichick went on the road to defeat the Carolina Panthers with a final score of 24-6.

Now at 5-4, the Patriots are very much alive in the race for a playoff spot in the AFC.

With that said, here are some initial observations from the team’s fourth straight road win.

New England’s offense plays a sloppy first half

Coming off some encouraging performances against the New York Jets and Los Angeles Chargers, the Patriots offense played a sloppy first half against the Panthers. While the unit did come to life late, it struggled with penalties and turnovers throughout the first 30 minutes.

The first quarter alone saw four accepted penalties called against New England, including three pre-snap infractions. They actively put the team behind the sticks, but were far from the only issue. The Patriots also turned the football over two times in the first half.

After apparent miscommunication between tight end Hunter Henry and left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Mac Jones was sacked from the blindside by Carolina edge rusher Brian Burns and lost a fumble. New England also gave the football away a second time:

Stephon Gilmore picks off his former teammate Mac Jones

Almost exactly a month after the Patriots traded Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round draft choice in 2023, the star cornerback got a chance to go up against his old team. While he did not play an every-down role — he is still working his way back from a quad injury that forced him to start the season on the physically unable to perform list — he still made an impact as a part-time defender.

In the second quarter, Gilmore intercepted Patriots QB Mac Jones on a second-down pass intended for Jakobi Meyers. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year returned the pick 13 yards to set up his new club at the New England 34-yard line. Carolina’s offense turned the INT into a three points.

Rhamondre Stevenson helps kickstart New England’s attack

After their first-quarter miscues put the Patriots in a 3-0 hole, the offense was in dire need of some momentum. The unit found it in the form of fourth-round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson: the Oklahoma product kickstarted New England’s fourth possession by catching a short pass on 2nd-and-11 and taking it 41 yards into Carolina territory.

The next three plays saw Stevenson advance the football as well. The youngster gained a combined 21 yards on three carries to set up a goal-to-go situation; Damien Harris capped the possession with a touchdown run from 3 yards out to put the Patriots up 7-3.

In total, Stevenson ended the game with 12 touches — 10 rushes and 2 catches — for a combined 106 yards. However, the rookie also remained on the ground after an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter and was later labeled questionable to return due to a head injury. He did not reenter the contest.

New England’s offense executes the four-minute drill to perfection

While the Patriots offense had a rough first half, it was able to get things going late. Following Gilmore’s interception and the subsequent Carolina field goal drive, Mac Jones and company executed a perfect four-minute drill.

With a 28-yard touch pass to Brandon Bolden on 3rd-and-5 as the pivotal play of the series, New England was able to march 75 yards in 10 plays to add to its 7-6 lead. The drive was capped off by a 7-yard laser from Jones to Hunter Henry for six — the third third down conversion of the drive, and Henry’s fifth touchdown reception in the last six games.

Mr. INT leads a dominant defensive effort

When he was still quarterbacking the New York Jets, Sam Darnold played three games against the New England defense: he lost all three of them and completed only 53.2 percent of his passes for a combined 519 yards as well as 1 touchdown and 6 interceptions. Now in Carolina, his fortunes did not change.

Darnold struggled all day, with the Patriots limiting him to 16 completions on 33 pass attempts for 172 yards and three interceptions.

The first of those picks came courtesy Mr. INT himself: J.C. Jackson, who took over as New England’s CB1 following the Stephon Gilmore trade, took advantage of an inaccurate throw by Darnold. With nothing but FieldTurf ahead of him, Jackson returned the interception 88 yards for a touchdown.

Just one drive later, Jamie Collins grabbed another pick. Darnold attempted a third-down throw over the middle, but the linebacker reacted quickly to snatch the football out of the air. Collins’ pick also led to points: New England’s offense converted it into a Nick Folk field goal to go up 24-6 in the late third quarter.

The very next Carolina possession ended with another interception. J.C. Jackson was once again able to get the better of Darnold, picking off a pass in the end zone intended for wide receiver D.J. Moore.

With Jackson leading the charge, the Patriots defense limited Carolina’s offense to only 240 yards and six points — all of them coming off New England turnovers.

Brandon Bolden the last man standing at running back

As mentioned above, Rhamondre Stevenson was lost for the game in the fourth quarter due to a head injury. He was not the only member of New England’s running back group to go down: just a few plays later, Damien Harris remained on the ground after a hard hit from Brian Burns.

Harris eventually did walk off the field under his own power, but he headed straight into the blue medical tent and did not return to the game as well. Just like Stevenson, the Patriots’ lead running back suffered a head injury.

With the two backs out of the game, veteran Brandon Bolden remained the last man standing. Bolden ended the contest with 10 touches for 81 yards.