Carolina's Steve Smith and New England's Aqib Talib exchange unpleasantries during the first half. (USA Today photo)

Carolina’s Steve Smith and New England’s Aqib Talib exchange unpleasantries during the first half. (USA Today photo)

For the second time in four games, the New England Patriots game ended on a controversial officials call. This one in the end zone as time expired as the on-field officials threw a flag on the Carolina Panthers for pass interference, then deemed the pass uncatchable and picked it up ending the game, a 24-20 Panthers win.

Back in New York at the end of October, the Patriots were penalized for pushing a teammate on a field goal attempt in overtime, giving the Jets a fresh set of downs that ultimately led to a game winning field goal.

While that play will be replayed all week, it unfairly overshadowed two magnificent performances by QBs Cam Newton and Tom Brady on Monday night, giving viewers a thrilling game that literally went right down to the wire.

Here are some observations on the game Monday night:

Thrilling Final Minute: Newton had given Carolina a 24-20 lead with a 25 yard touchdown pass with just 59 seconds left, leading a 13-play, 83 drive in which he constantly made big plays on third down to keep the chains moving.

Brady moved the Patriots from their 20 yard line to the Panthers 18 with just three seconds left on the clock. He attempted a pass down the seam to Gronkowski who appeared to be held by MLB Luke Keuchly. The officials threw a flag for pass interference which would have given the Patriots the ball on the 1 yard line with no time left for one play to win the game.

“The back judge saw that there was contact and the defender was not playing the ball and that led him to throw [the flag] for defensive pass interference,” referee Clete Blakeman said in a statement after the game.

“It was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.”

Gronkowski asked if he was interfered with said, “I’ve got to re-watch, but if you saw that, then I would say yeah,” he said.

“It just wasn’t completed and there was no flag. There was a flag, but it got called back. I don’t even know why they threw it and there’s just no excuse. I’m not trying to be here to make excuses, they’re a good football team, they scored more points than us and they beat us straight up,” he added.

Gronkowski_Rob-Patriots 11-18-13
Interference or uncatchable? The game’s final play.
(USA TODAY Images)

“It is how it is now, and they took the call back and can’t do anything about it, and that’s not when the game is won and lost. They’re a very good team, they played tough all four quarters.”

Patriots Had No Answer For Newton: Entering the game, the Patriots knew they would have to account for Cam Newton and that he’s a dangerous player with his feet or throwing the ball. And he shredded them time and again, especially on third downs by doing both.

One particular play in the third quarter had the Panthers facing a third and seven and the Patriots brought pressure and it seemed that they had Newton sacked at least two to three times deep in the backfield. But he escaped, running 14 yards for a first down, (covering 75 yards on the play) that eventually would result in a Carolina touchdown giving them a 17-10 lead.

New England got very little pressure on Newton all game and when they brought extra pass rushers, it had little effect with Newton going 8-11 for 98 yards and a touchdown. His scrambles kept drives alive and in a close game on the line, he was the difference.

His final stat line was 19 for 28 for 209 yards and three touchdown passes. He rushed 7 times for 62 yards, which is notable since Carolina’s three running backs, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined for only 16 carries for 41 yards.

Vereen’s Return An Impressive One: Shane Vereen, who hadn’t played since the opener in Buffalo suffering a broken wrist returned to action was particularly effective in the passing game.

He led all receivers with 65 yards on 8 catches and brings a special dynamic to the field for the Patriots. While Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount are effective runners, neither brings anything close to what Vereen does in the passing game.

And going down the stretch, Vereen’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will definitely boost the Patriots offense bringing an added dimension for Brady to utilize in the passing game.

Brady Has Impressive Game Again: Tom Brady, coming off of an impressive showing against Pittsburgh was looking to come off the bye and put back-to-back solid showings together and was razor sharp.

Overall he was 29 for 40 for 296 yards 1 touchdown and 1 interception against the #1 statistical defense of Carolina. Prior to the final drive, he was 25 for 29 for 244 yards and a touchdown utilizing a short passing game that largely negated the stiff Carolina pass rush.

But this game will be looked back on as a game where they left opportunities and points on the field.

Key Turning Point: The ultimate key to the game was in late in the 4th quarter and the score tied at 17. New England had driven down to the Carolina 8 yard line and faced a key third down and 1.

Given that they had run the ball fairly effectively at that point and the Carolina defense was getting gassed at that point, it seems like a run at this point would have been in order and given a fresh set of downs could have possibly resulted in seven points rather than the three which set the stage for Newton’s heroics down the stretch.

But the Patriots called a fade pass in the corner of the endzone that wasn’t open and fell incomplete, which was also Brady’s first incomplete pass of the fourth quarter. While it’s easy to second guess the call AFTER it fails…the play call had no other option if it wasn’t open (it wasn’t) and the team would have been better served with a run.

There is no guarantee that even with a fresh set of downs that they’d have scored a touchdown, but their chances of winning would have been better served and not to mention the time it would have taken off the clock.

Short Week For Denver: The Patriots loss drops them into a tie for the second seed of the AFC with Indianapolis and this is one loss that they don’t have time to stew over. Because with the short week ahead, they now face the Denver Broncos (9-1) and Peyton Manning on Sunday night in Foxboro.

And that is going to bring an entirely different set of challenges for the team. With CBs Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib hurting, safety Steve Gregory out they will have to circle the wagons if they are going to win on Sunday. Stay tuned….

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