Keeping true to form, another five-alarm inferno erupted for the Patriots defensively in Foxboro on Sunday.
New England wouldn’t be truly following the script if not for yet another superhuman performance down the stretch from its ageless wonder under center, Tom Brady.
And yet despite Brady’s heroics in the fourth quarter, the Patriots shot themselves in the foot defensively one too many times in a 33-30 loss to the Carolina Panthers, dropping New England to 2-2 at the quarter pole of the 2017 season.
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The Patriots committed two defensive penalties on Carolina’s game-defining drive, which ended with a Graham Gano 47-yard field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter.
Stephon Gilmore was flagged for his second illegal use of hands to the face in the game, wiping out a Deatrich Wise Jr. sack on third down that would have forced a Panthers punt. Patrick Chung got caught holding later on the drive, further advancing the drive to give Gano plenty of room to send Carolina to victory.
“It was obviously a close, hard-fought game. In the end, we just didn’t make enough plays that we needed to make to win,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “We’ve just got to do a better job all the way around. It just wasn’t enough.”
Cam Newton, who was limited in practice last week for the Panthers, resembled the 2015 MVP version of himself for the first time in a long time. Carolina set season highs in both points and total yardage (433) in becoming the third team to drop 30 or more points on the Patriots this season.
After a head-scratching throw into double coverage which resulted in an easy interception for Malcolm Butler, Newton completed each of his next 10 throws and never fell out of rhythm. He finished 22 for 29 passing with three touchdowns and the pick, throwing for 316 yards. Newton also ran a bit for the Panthers, carrying the ball eight times for 44 yards – including a 7-yard touchdown run with 12:54 to go in the fourth quarter.
Newton’s 130.8 passer rating was the sixth-best of his career.
“It’s bad,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of communication issues plaguing the defense. “We’re letting our team down and not playing good football. If we can’t play somewhat decent defense it’s going to be hard to win games. Our offense played great last week and bailed us out and they played great again this week, and we [the defense] let them down.”
Signs existed early that it could be yet another long day for New England defensively, even after being spotted a 3-0 lead by the offense. Carolina picked up big chunks of yardage on three consecutive plays during its first series: a Devin Funchess 14-yard reception followed by back-to-back pass plays to Ed Dickson for 25 and 13 yards, respectively.
Still, the Patriots showed some signs of life as the Panthers neared the red zone. Newton followed up the three consecutive first downs with a 4-yard pass to Christian McCaffrey, but couldn’t move the sticks again. On third-and-6, Newton was flushed from the pocket and brought down short of a first down on a joint tackle by Devin McCourty and Cassius Marsh. A Gano 32-yard field goal tied the game at 3-3.
After Newton’s interception to Butler on the next drive, Carolina scored a touchdown on four of its next five drives and didn’t need to use punter Michael Palardy until halfway through the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been putting our offense in a shootout every week,” McCourty said. “It’s almost like they have to get seven or three points on a drive, so I’m sure they must be frustrated with our defense.”
With the game tied at 10-10 in the second quarter, Brady dialed up Rob Gronkowski for a 43-yard gain, moving him into third on the Patriots all-time receiving yards list behind only Wes Welker (7,459) and Stanley Morgan (10,352). Despite the massive gain, the Patriots stalled out in the red zone once again and had to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski 35-yard field goal to regain the lead.
It was another great game for Gostkowski, who was 3 for 3 on both field goals and extra points. His 58-yarder as time expired in the first half was both a career long and Patriots franchise record.
Down 30-16 after Newton’s touchdown run, the Patriots responded with back-to-back touchdown drives. First, it was Dion Lewis who scampered in from 8 yards out with 8:46 remaining to pull New England within a score.
Fresh off what would be Carolina’s lone punt of the game, the Patriots had the ball at the Panthers 49-yard line. Brady drove the team down to the 1, where a pair of plays failed to get New England across the goal line before who else but Danny Amendola arrived on the scene.
On fourth-and-1, Brady found Amendola in a tight window along the back of the end zone, setting the stage for Gostkowski to tie the game after his PAT was good.
“Of course,” Amendola said when asked if he was disappointed the offense didn’t get a chance to answer Gano’s game-winning field goal. “We play to win, so I’m not happy.”
The Panthers had 28 first downs to the Patriots’ 24, and were 6 for 9 on third down plays while the Patriots were just 7 for 14.
Carolina is now 3-1 vs. New England since Super Bowl XXXVIII, in which the Patriots defeated the Panthers, 32-29. Julius Peppers, who was active in that game for Carolina, did today what he couldn’t do back then: get to Brady. The 37-year-old Peppers had two of the team’s three sacks this afternoon.
“It’s nice,” said Peppers, who returned to the Panthers this offseason after departing as a free agent in 2010. “We rush as a unit and we all feed off one another. I was the beneficiary today, but it was a group effort.”
Whatever issues the Patriots are having defensively – and it’s a lengthy laundry list at this point – there’s not much time to solve them this week. New England is playing on Thursday Night Football in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers this week, with a kickoff at 8:25 p.m.