The Panthers, Not the Refs, Beat New England
The Patriots didn’t lose to the Panthers last night because they got jobbed by a bad call on the final play of the game. That’s wildly inaccurate. The Patriots lost because they let the game come down to one play from the 18-yard line down four points. They lost because they put off the moment of truth, because they let themselves down with subpar execution in key moments, because they were victimized by the same issues that seem to haunt this team through every one of its notable losses. The Patriots lost to the Panthers on Monday night because they’re not as good of a football team as the Panthers, who did all the little things that the old Patriots teams used to get credit for. And that includes daring the refs to call for a game-changing pass interference on the game-deciding play.
There’s so much more to what happened in this game than its final play, so let’s get it out of the way first. My guess is that about 75 percent of the outrage regarding the no-call on the Panthers defense for wrapping up Rob Gronkowski revolves around the fact that, for a moment, the flag was thrown. Everybody watching the game with a vested interest went through that emotional cycle of dealing with the repercussions — an untimed down for the win from the 1-yard line for the Patriots — before the flag was picked up. For Patriots fans, I can imagine that’s a huge portion of why it feels like that game was taken away from them; they had allowed themselves to believe that the penalty had occurred in a way that would not have happened if the flag had never come out of back judge Terrence Miles’s pocket. Had this play happened exactly as played with no flag ever touching the ground, Patriots fans would still be angry there wasn’t a call, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the flash point it appears to be right now.
So, should there have been a penalty on the play? There are three possibilities I’ve heard bandied about. One, illegal contact, is a total nonstarter. You can only call illegal contact if the quarterback is still in the pocket and the ball is in his hands, and the contact between Gronkowski and Luke Kuechly occurred after the pass was thrown. That one is off the table. The second is defensive pass interference, which was the call made by Miles on the field before the umpire and side judge conferred with Miles and the rest of Clete Blakeman’s crew, coming to the conclusion that the ball was uncatchable. I tend to agree with the officials here. Gronkowski is a freak athlete, but his momentum was carrying him away from the pass before Kuechly ever touched him. Even if you ignore that there were multiple Panthers defenders between Gronkowski and the ball, I don’t think Gronkowski gets back to that pass if he’s going up against air. The pass was so underthrown, in fact, that I wonder whether Tom Brady was purposely trying to draw a pass interference call with the throw to get his offense into a much more feasible game-winning situation. If the pass is uncatchable, there’s no conversation to be had about pass interference.
The third possibility is defensive holding, which has a much stronger case. Defensive holding has no such disclaimer about the ball being in the quarterback’s hands or the receiver being near a catchable pass, so the arguments against the first two possible calls don’t apply. Kuechly’s actions on the play also seem to fit one of the NFL’s definitions of defensive holding:
The defensive player cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an eligible receiver in a manner that restricts movement as the play develops. Beyond this five-yard limitation, a defender may use his hands or arms ONLY to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. In such reaction, the defender may not contact a receiver who attempts to take a path to evade him.
Given that description, I think it’s fair to call Kuechly for defensive holding on the play. Once the officials decided the pass was uncatchable and that Kuechly’s action then could not represent pass interference, they should have recognized that Kuechly’s actions still qualified as a penalty and flagged him for holding, giving the Patriots five yards and an untimed down to win the game.
That wouldn’t turn a loss into a win for the Patriots, or come close to making them the favorites to win. A defensive holding call would have given New England one chance to try to convert from the 13-yard line (barring another penalty) on an untimed down. Their chances of winning would be marginally greater than they had been from the 18-yard line on the previous play, which advancednflstats.com pegged at 23 percent. Their odds would have been right around 60 percent (a conservative estimate of their chances given Brady’s historical success from the 1-yard line against the likelihood that the Panthers would be looking for exactly such a sneak) had the refs flagged Kuechly for pass interference and given the Patriots an untimed down to win from the 1-yard line, but even that’s far from a guarantee. If the penalty was called properly, the Patriots were going to have about a 30 percent chance of winning the game. That’s a lot more than zero, but it’s not much more than the 23 percent figure they were at on the previous play.
So, then, the Patriots really didn’t lose because they were victimized by a bad call on the game’s final play; they lost because they put themselves in a situation where they had a 23 percent chance of winning to begin with. That starts with some ugly execution on their final drive before that fateful play. Carolina’s pass rush began the drive with a dominant effort on three consecutive snaps, despite star pass-rusher Charles Johnson playing through a knee injury after being leg-whipped by Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon. (Cannon was incorrectly not called for a personal foul on the play, which came early on a drive that produced a Patriots touchdown.) It took a game-extending fourth-down conversion up the seam to Gronkowski to extend the game. After a completion to Danny Amendola moved the chains two plays later, Brady nearly ended the game with a twice-tipped would-be interception on a pass to Aaron Dobson. On the next play, he hit Shane Vereen with a picture-perfect lob on a swing route out of the backfield, only for Vereen to drop the pass. That would have given New England first down around the 25-yard line with about 20 seconds and a timeout left. When the Patriots instead made it to the 25-yard line two plays later, they were left with six seconds and no timeouts. The drop cost them, quite possibly, three more shots at the end zone. That has all been lost in the hysteria over the non-call at the end, but it makes all the difference in the world.
The Patriots lost because they failed to capitalize on their opportunities when they had the chances to do so. They cost themselves a minimum of three points in the second quarter when Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball away on the Carolina 12-yard line, leading to Ridley’s latest fumble-related benching. Along with the interception Brady threw on the game’s final play, the Patriots lost the turnover battle two-nil to Carolina, snapping a streak of 36 consecutive regular-season games with at least one takeaway.
They also became the latest victim to take the points. When the Patriots failed to come up with a key third-down pass to Dobson on third-and-1 from the Carolina 8-yard line with 6:36 left in the game, the Patriots were forced to kick a 26-yard field goal to go up by three points. As much as I like to castigate teams that kick short field goals on fourth-and-1, this isn’t a case where the Patriots were scared to fail or anything like that; you basically have to kick in that spot and hope your defense can hold the other team to a maximum of three points. (The numbers say New England should have tried to convert if it had a 63 percent chance of success.) When the New England defense failed to do so, the Patriots were eventually stuck needing to convert a much more difficult play from the 18-yard line to try to win the game. It’s often true that teams that pass on a short fourth down to kick in a close game eventually have to try a much more difficult fourth-down play later in the contest, but the issue here isn’t what the Patriots did on fourth down; it’s that they couldn’t pick up the yard they needed on third down.
The Patriots lost because they couldn’t stop Cam Newton from picking up the yards he needed on third down. Carolina was a whopping 8-for-11 on third down, including three such conversions on the game-winning drive. Newton picked up 14 yards with a magical scramble to convert a third-and-7 in the third quarter, then later wriggled his way out of pressure to gain an unlikely 15 yards on third-and-6 to keep that final drive going. A designed Newton draw gained three yards on the next series’s third-and-2, and when the Panthers threw on the ensuing third-and-7, Devin McCourty was whistled for defensive holding when he wrapped up Greg Olsen.
Stop the Panthers on either of those first two Newton third-down runs during the final drive and the Patriots’ chances of winning skyrocket; they force the Panthers to punt, causing Carolina to use its timeouts to try to stop New England and get the ball back. If they come away from the final third down without a penalty, they force Carolina to try a 53-yard field goal to tie, giving the Patriots the ball back with either a tie game or their narrow three-point lead. In either case, New England’s final drive doesn’t require a touchdown. The Patriots’ run defense, missing injured defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, did an admirable job in holding Carolina’s three-headed hydra at running back to 41 yards on 16 carries. The likes of Joe Vellano and Chris Jones just couldn’t contain or slow down Newton and come up with a stop when they needed one.
And the Patriots lost because their patchwork secondary came up short again. Aqib Talib returned from a hip injury and looked to be less than 100 percent, with Steve Smith showing more signs of life than the likes of Jimmy Graham did in Talib’s presence before the hip complaint. Talib reaggravated the hip injury in the fourth quarter. With Alfonzo Dennard out, the Patriots were then forced to turn to the oft-maligned Kyle Arrington at the opposite corner spot. It was Arrington who missed a tackle on Ted Ginn at the line of scrimmage on the innocuous checkdown that became Carolina’s game-winning touchdown.
The Patriots had to trade for Talib and commit to starting Dennard (a seventh-round pick with serious off-field issues) and giving Arrington (a journeyman undrafted free agent) a contract extension because they simply missed on a generation of high draft picks in their secondary. Seven New England first- or second-round picks in the defensive backfield since 2007 have failed to develop into the players their draft status suggested coming out of school; of the seven, only McCourty (moved from cornerback to safety) and Tavon Wilson (strictly a special-teamer) remain with the team. Arrington couldn’t make that tackle. Could the player the Patriots envisioned when they drafted Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, or Ras-I Dowling have pulled it off instead? If Arrington — or whoever’s out there in his place — makes that tackle, the Panthers are facing third-and-14 from the New England 24-yard line, which likely pushes them into a running play to create an easier field goal attempt that ties the game. The Patriots then get the ball back for a two-minute drill with a shot at winning the game with a field goal.
All those ifs and buts are why the Patriots lost this game. New England had chance after chance to seal the game up or make it exceedingly difficult for Carolina to win, and it failed to execute on every one of those opportunities. The Patriots left game-changing plays on the field and made mistakes we would normally associate with a team that hadn’t “been there before,” like the Panthers. Yes, the Patriots probably deserved a penalty on the final play, albeit not the one their fans were screaming for. But given how New England played with the game on the line, it deserved to lose, regardless of how that final call shook out. When the Patriots put themselves in a situation where they were desperate for one borderline call to go their way, they had already come up short.