By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — When Tom Brady tied the game Sunday with a touchdown strike to Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone with just over three minutes left in the game, all of Gillette Stadium believed it was time to witness another unbelievable Patriots victory.
And when Deatrich Wise brought down Cam Newton with a sack on a third down less than a minute later, which would have set the Patriots up near midfield needing just a field goal to win, the confidence inside the stadium reached a peak.
Alas, a yellow flag flew on the play, thus giving Carolina a fresh set of downs. The Panthers took full advantage, gaining 15 yards on the ground on the next snap, and driving into comfortable field-goal range for Graham Gano. The kicker successfully booted a 48-yarder as time expired, sending the home crowd home dismayed.
Though there are many positives as well as negatives over the course of a 60-minute game, the overwhelming feeling from the perspective of the home team after the 33-30 loss was negative. So let’s just start with the Downs in this week’s Four Ups, Four Downs feature.
The Patriots surprised everyone when they went out and threw a big-money deal at Gilmore the moment free agency began this past offseason. The sixth-year corner has not quite lived up to the deal.
He committed two crushing penalties on Sunday. The first — a hands to the face penalty which granted Carolina a fresh set of downs after a third-down incompletion, on the way to a touchdown drive — could be forgiven for being as a ticky-tack foul. But even with the knowledge that light contact to the facemask was going to draw a flag on this day, Gilmore once again got his hands in the face of his man, once again on third down, once again giving Carolina new life.
This one was particularly back-breaking, because Deatrich Wise had sacked Cam Newton on the Carolina 16-yard line. If the Panthers had punted, then Tom Brady and Co. would have gotten the ball near midfield. A Patriots win would have been highly likely.
Instead, Carolina kept the ball, and drove down the field for the game-winning field goal.
Earlier, Gilmore also vacated the right side of the field to cover nobody, thus giving a free path to Fozzy Whittaker for a much-too-easy 28-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
Unsurprisingly, on a day when the Panthers rolled for 444 yards and 33 points, it’s another defensive back on this list.
Rowe, who seemed to have supplanted Malcolm Butler just two weeks ago in the starting defense before suffering a groin injury, had a difficult day in the physicality department. And it cost the Patriots dearly.
The most obvious came with just under three minutes to play in the first half. Devin Funchess caught a pass on the right side on a third-and-8. Rowe was in position to make a tackle short of the sticks fairly deep in Carolina territory, but he just missed. The Panthers were in the end zone six plays later.
Earlier in the second quarter, rookie Christian McCaffrey bulled his way right through Rowe to get past the sticks on a play that also came on a Carolina touchdown drive.
Rowe later left the game due to a reaggravation of his groin injury. It was a rough day all around for the third-year corner.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, safeties coach Steve Belichick, head coach Bill Belichick
We can pinpoint individual performance all day long, but there’s just no excuse for the Patriots defense to look this bad so often this season.
There’s just no excuse for an NFL defense to give this clear of a path to the end zone on a simple dump pass from nearly 30 yards out:
There’s likewise no excuse for an NFL defense to completely lose track of the 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin not once but twice for crucial third-down conversions.
Here’s the first, a 43-yard gain on a third-and-9 just prior to halftime:
And here’s the second, which came on the opening play of the fourth quarter and went for 34 yards on a third-and-9:
Benjamin is without a doubt Carolina’s most dangerous receiving threat, and yet the defense still managed to lose him in critical situations.
It just can’t happen. And even though the Patriots have just four days to prepare for their next game, expect some very long weeks for the players and coaches whose job it is to limit opposing offenses. There’s nobody on defense who feels excellent after Sunday.
Mike Gillislee/Running Game
The Patriots’ passing game was, for the most part, excellent. But if Tom Brady, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski are expected to survive the season, a running game is going to have to develop sooner than later.
So far, the results just aren’t there. It’s not entirely on Mike Gillislee, as it takes linemen and a tight end and a fullback to execute most running plays. But Gillislee’s 49 yards on 12 carries was just not enough to help the Patriots on this day.
That total included a 13-yard run on a drive that ended with a Patriots punt. On Gillislee’s other 11 carries, he gained just 3.3 yards per carry, and he was stuffed at the line on a second-and-goal from the Carolina 1-yard line two plays prior to Brady having to throw for the tying score.
Overall on 19 carries, the Patriots gained just 80 yards on the ground. Running will never be the offense’s top priority so long as Brady is captaining the ship. But for a number of reasons — namely, keeping the offense on the field and giving the aforementioned struggling defense a rest — it needs to be ever-so-slightly better than that.
He may be more susceptible to injuries than some other players, but that’s only because he plays a fearless style of football. You can’t help but appreciate it.
He caught six passes for 42 yards and the fourth-quarter, game-tying touchdown on Sunday, but it wasn’t the touchdown that stood out the most. This catch came earlier on the game-tying drive, on a third-and-3 at the 25-yard line. A field goal on this drive was no good; the Patriots needed to get into the end zone. Amendola managed to find some space on the left side, and he waited for Brady’s pass. He hauled it in just before James Bradberry came flying into the picture like a missile.
Bradberry absolutely crushed Amendola, knocking him backward hard onto the turf. But Amendola held on to the football, and he had the first down.
It was only fitting that Amendola was able to cap off that drive with the touchdown.
Another ho-hum performance from the 40-year-old: 32-for-45 (71.1 percent), 307 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, all while taking another seven hits in the backfield.
For maybe the fourth straight week, it would be fair to say the Patriots probably would have lost by double digits if anyone but Brady was lining up under center.
It was the 79th time in Brady’s career that he threw for 300 yards in a game.
Dont’a Hightower, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise
It was a terrible day for the defense, but each of these players came up with one play that would have been fondly recalled in New England if the final minutes went just a little bit differently.
Hightower, playing in his first game since Week 1, came up with a sack on third-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter in order to get the Patriots the football in a scenario in which they could tie the game.
Flowers artfully punched the ball out of running back Jonathan Stewart’s arms inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line on the opening drive of the second half, thus taking at least three — but more likely, seven — points off the board for the Panthers.
And the rookie Wise came up with his biggest play yet, sacking Newton at the Carolina 16-yard line with 2:11 left to play in a tie game. If not for Gilmore’s penalty, which was inconsequential to Wise’s work on the line, that would’ve been the defensive play of the game.
It may not mean much, given the result, but it’s worth documenting.
He was perfect on the day, and he made some history. He booted a 58-yard field goal just before halftime, which set a Patriots franchise record.
The kick provided somewhat of a lift before halftime, as it came just after a Panthers touchdown.
“You just try to be ready to go when you get a chance like that,” Gostkowski said. “It’s one of those kicks where it’s like you have nothing to lose. You’re not expected to make it, so you kind of have a different attitude going out there. It was set up nice, the wind was behind my back and it was a nice day, but it kind of feels like a foul ball though because we wound up losing. It took the wind out of my sails.”
He’s now a perfect 8-for-8 on field goals, and he’s 13-for-14 on PATs.