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There is no way around the fact that this was a statement game for both teams. The Panthers were riding a five-game winning streak coming into Week 11, and a win over the Patriots is the equivalent to the Super Bowl for teams who haven’t been relevant in years. The Patriots needed a win to further distance themselves in the division, as well as set themselves up for a number 1- or 2-seed in the conference. Credit to the Panthers as they stepped their game up and came out with a huge victory for their franchise, despite the controversial ending.
– Right off the bat, shall we discuss the game-ending non-call? Call me a biased homer all you want, but there is no way that was not pass interference. Referee Clete Blakeman’s explanation afterwards only strengthens my belief that the refs dropped the ball on this one. If you have to repeatedly use the phrase “in essence” when describing something as black and white as pass interference, then you are talking in circles to avoid admitting the fact that you were flat out wrong. I will always be the first one to say “let the boys play,” but considering that exact same pass interference call is called every week, and was called a drive earlier on Devin McCourty (his first penalty all year by the way), it HAS to be called there. Not calling that pass interference means that the NFL needs to rethink about 90% of the pass interference calls in the league. Gerry Austin and Blakeman keep trying to make the argument that the ball was intercepted before there was contact, and that Rob Gronkowski could not have caught the ball, which is absolutely mind boggling. The pictures and the replays all show Gronk being pushed back by Luke Kuechly away from the ball, making it impossible for Gronk to catch it. The ball is then picked off AFTER Gronk is being pushed back five yards by Kuechly. That is the definition of pass interference and should have placed the ball at the 1-yard line.
– Now the argument becomes, “let the boys play.” If the correct call is made, and the ball is placed at the 1-yard line, Carolina still has the chance to stop the Patriots. They have the best defense in the league and any championship caliber team would salivate at the idea of stuffing a goal line run to win the game. The boys still would have been able to play if the correct call was made. People may argue that we, as fans, wanted the flag for the push rule against the Jets picked up and this is the same situation. Wrong. The call in the Jets game was a new rule, that wasn’t called at all until that very play. They picked a 57-yard field goal in overtime to decide to call a penalty for the first time. Ticky-tack pass interference calls happen on a weekly basis, multiple times a game. Gronk was blatantly interfered with, and the ref who was five feet away threw the flag. Then the refs who were 30 yards away decided to overrule the ref with the best view of the play. The NFL is starting to mirror the NBA, and that is terrible.
– There is of course blame to be placed on the Patriots. They had the chance to milk the clock and go up by a touchdown, but instead they settled for a field goal. Their last offensive drive they marched down the field and were running right up the middle with LeGarette Blount. Fast forward to 3rd-and-1 on the Carolina 8-yard line and they line up with a jumbo set with Gronk, Matthew Mulligan, Blount, James Develin, and Aaron Dobson. Then they try to pass it with Brady’s first look being the fullback Develin, and eventually throwing it out of the endzone in the area of Dobson. Whoever called that play deserves the blame. By the look of the set, I would guess McDaniels called a run and Brady called an audible when he saw Carolina stack the box. Maybe McDaniels called the pass outright. Either way it was a bad call and it ended up costing them the game. If they try the run, or even a QB sneak, worst case scenario they end up in the same position, best case scenario they get the first and get to milk the clock more. Just a very confusing play call at a time like that.
– I am disappointed in the play of Aqib Talib. Not so much his actual ability on the field but that he let Steve Smith get into his head, which led to Talib committing a terrible penalty. The hip is clearly still an issue as he finished the game on the bench, but he absolutely cannot let players like Smith dictate how he plays his game.
– The injuries in the secondary are alarming. That unit was finally playing some really good football and now they are riddled with injuries. Talib and Arrington were both questionable to play that game, with the former finishing it on the bench. Alfonzo Dennard missed the game with a knee injury, and all indications are he could miss a few more games. Steve Gregory, who I’m not exactly fond of, is out, so that’s another signal caller down. Facing the Broncos with a banged up secondary is going to be an immense challenge.
– A big takeaway from this game is that the offense, which was fully healthy for the first time all season, looked very sharp. Aside from that last drive where Brady went 4-of-12 with the game-ending interception, he was 25-for-28 for 234 yards and a touchdown. Brady was having his best game of the season by far and at the very least it makes me hopeful for the remaining games.
– Having Shane Vereen back is huge. Yes he dropped that wheel-route late in the game, but what he brings to the game is something this team hasn’t had since Kevin Faulk, and he may even be better than Faulk. Vereen brings a lot of different looks to the offense. He can line up as a regular back and take handoffs. Brady can line up with him in shotgun and audible to screens to offset a pass rush. Vereen showed that he is a solid blocking back as well. And of course we know he can lineup as a wide receiver.
– Being the first time Brady had his full supporting cast, it was very promising to see how sharp they looked. Of course there is still plenty of room for improvement, namely getting into the end zone more. They shot themselves in the foot a few times with bad penalties — looking at you Logan Mankins — and Stevan Ridley’s fumble killed a very good drive. When this offense is fully healthy, though, there’s no reason they can’t score 30 points per game.
– Speaking of Mankins, the offensive line is the main question mark the rest of the way. All season they have been making it difficult on Brady by not giving him enough time in the pocket. It isn’t just one guy, as they all have shown the ability to miss a block completely. While Brady has struggled most of this season getting on the same page of his receivers, it seems the rest of the way he needs to get on the same page as his offensive line. They need to get their act together fast, as the offense is going to need to put up a lot of points to keep up with Manning and the Broncos taking on a very banged up Patriots defense.
– All the credit in the world to Cam Newton. I have never believed he would pan out, and last night he kept his composure and led his team to the victory. He did exactly what he had to do and made some unbelievable plays. Have to give credit where it’s due and Cam certainly deserves praise for his performance.
– A couple notes about the defense. Chandler Jones once again played well and he is quickly becoming one of the better defensive ends in the league. On the stunt he ran where he and Ninkovich got to Newton, he flat out juked the offensive lineman. He is one of the most athletic defensive ends the Patriots have ever had.
– The combination of Isaac Sopoaga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano appears to be working out well. Aside from when Newton got out of the pocket and broke off some runs, the rest of Carolina’s rushers only managed 41 yards. That is a vast improvement over the past couple weeks. The addition of Sopoaga to shore up the middle of the line is a great compliment to the pass rushing abilities of Vellano and Jones. It’s no Vince Wilfork by a long shot, but for the time being it will have to do.
– The Patriots sit at 7-3 with two of those losses coming hand in hand with some questionable officiating, but they are still lined up for the number 2-seed in the AFC. Sunday night’s game against Denver is huge, and I would definitely go so far to call it a must win. They need to show they can beat the best, and cannot afford a loss at home to a conference rival.