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The New England Patriots slowly but surely exerted their will on the Carolina Panthers on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in Foxboro, MA.
A win is a win in the NFL, whether you cream the Tennessee Titans 59-0 or edge the Carolina Panthers by 10. In the months of December and January, winning means everything. No style points are given in this league, and if they were, the Patriots certainly wouldn’t have received any for their win over the Panthers on Sunday. Nevertheless, Sunday’s 20-10 victory pushed the Patriots regular season record to 8-5 and helped them maintain their slim lead over the New York Jets (7-6) and Miami Dolphins (7-6) in the AFC East division.
Things were not looking good for the Patriots when Panthers second-string quarterback Matt Moore, filling in for injured starter Jake Delhomme, hit Steve Smith for a 41-yard touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the first quarter. The touchdown came just a few plays after Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble picked off a Tom Brady pass intended for Randy Moss. The interception set Carolina up with great field position, and they were able to make the Patriots pay.
As the second quarter began, rain and wind descended upon Gillette Stadium, and looked more and more like a bad omen for the Patriots offense. On the Patriots first possession following the Carolina touchdown, Brady connected on a long pass to Randy Moss who fumbled deep in Carolina territory. Fortunately the Patriots defense stepped up on the following Carolina possession, forcing the Panthers to punt from deep in their own end of the field.
Even with great field position to start their next two drives, the Patriots were forced to punt the ball away to the Panthers. The offense looked out of sync for most of the first half, committing two turnovers and racking up five dropped passes.
The Panthers continued their conservative offensive approach, keeping the ball in the hands of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who combined for 111 yards rushing on the day. Carolina’s two-pronged rushing attack was able to move the ball just enough to set up kicker John Kasay for a 53-yard field goal attempt. But, Kasay’s kick couldn’t make it through the driving rain, and fell just short of the uprights.
On their next possession, the Patriots offense made sure they capitalized on good field position. A 30-yard pass interference penalty and a quick throw to Wes Welker set Tom Brady and company up at the Carolina five-yard line. On the next play from scrimmage, Kevin Faulk burst untouched through the middle of the Carolina defense for a three-yard touchdown run, knotting the game at 7-7 just before halftime.
The Patriots received the second-half kickoff and appeared to be marching for another score when running back Sammy Morris coughed the ball up deep in Carolina territory. Three New England turnovers had turned what should have been a comfortable victory into a dogfight. The 7-7 score line was indicative of the sloppy play from both teams. New England’s three turnovers, which would normally have been fatal, were balanced out by nine Carolina penalties.
An illegal shift penalty killed the Panthers next drive, and the Patriots found themselves pinned inside their own five-yard line following a Carolina pooch punt. With the season on the line, the Patriots offense went to work, embarking on a 96-yard, 13-play drive capped off by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to tight end Benjamin Watson.
The 96-yard drive was the Patriots longest of the season, and marked a turning point not only in the game, but in the season as well.
“We’d been flat pretty much the whole game and we needed a big drive there,” Welker said. “That’s when you have to step up.”
The drive began with Welker grabbing his 100th reception of the season. Welker, who caught ten passes for 105 yards on the day, caught five passes on the drive, including a 23-yard laser from Tom Brady, setting up the Patriots with a first and goal situation (which led to the Watson touchdown).
Carolina responded to the Patriots touchdown with a scoring drive of their own, which culminated in a 36-yard Kasay field goal.
With the score 14-10, the Patriots offense made sure the defense was not given an opportunity to blow another fourth quarter lead. Sitting comfortably in the pocket, Brady continued going to Welker underneath, and led the Patriots on two more scoring drives capped off by 48 and 47-yard field goals by Stephen Gostkowski, to seal the victory for New England.
“All week Bill talked about finishing,” running back Kevin Faulk said, “focusing, playing hard and finishing games.”
The Patriots did just that, and ironically enough, converted on fourth and short to ice the game.
The 8-5 Patriots will look to solidify a playoff position, and maintain their stranglehold on the AFC East, when they travel to Buffalo next weekend.