FOXBOROUGH –You could reasonably argue that the Patriots got away with one at home a week ago against Houston. This Sunday at Gillette, they probably got what they deserved, based on the way they played most of the day.
Through the first three games of 2017, New England's offense needed to average 33 points to compensate for a defense that was surrendering just shy of 32 points per contest.
Sunday against Carolina, neither side of the ball played consistently for three-plus quarters against a wounded Panthers team that came in with several key players inactive and a number of others who sustained injuries during the game.
New England's offense could – and should – have been more productive than the 16 points it put up in the first half were it not for some uncharacteristically off-target throws by QB Tom Brady. A few times, Brady's 40-year-old right arm looked its age, as the TB12 had difficulty delivering the ball to his open receivers deep downfield.
Meanwhile, a troublesome trend of defense continued Sunday, as the defense couldn't stop giving up big plays in the passing game. Communication is still clearly a problem, as cornerback Stephon Gilmore – he of the $65 million free agent contract – admitted later.
"Communication. We've got to get better on communication… I've got to get better on communication. We're close as a group. We've just got to get better. Can't let that happen… It's frustrating."
Gilmore looked out of place and unsure of his responsibilities on several first-half plays that resulted in either Panther scores or large gains. Carolina receivers were entirely uncovered and wide open as a result of the apparent confusion.
"Everybody's not on the same page," cornerback Malcolm Butler acknowledged. "We lost the game ourselves. It's nothing Carolina was doing. We basically beat ourselves."
Coming out of halftime, Gilmore appeared to be benched, but after just one second-half play, he was forced back onto the field when fellow corner Eric Rowe had to leave the game after aggravating his existing groin injury.
Meanwhile, New England's offense went flat. The Panthers shut the Patriots out in the third quarter.
"As an offense, we have to execute," tight end Rob Gronkowski lamented. "We had two great drives in the 4th quarter, but we have to be doing that throughout the whole game.
We have to put drives together every time. When we're in the red zone, we have to finish every time. We have to get touchdowns."
And the defense needs to stop giving them away.
Up 23-16, Carolina faced a 3rd-and-4 from its own 42 on the first play of the 4th quarter. A stop by the Patriots would have forced a punt. The D showed blitz pre-snap, but then dropped eight players into coverage at the snap. Panthers QB Cam Newton found WR Kelvin Benjamin all by himself downfield for a 39-yard catch-and-run to keep the drive going. It culminated with Newton's TD plunge to increase Carolina's lead to 30-16.
Brady and Co. did their best, as Gronkowski indicated, to hold up their end of the bargain by marching on a 9-play scoring drive immediately thereafter to cut Carolina's lead down to seven again. With half a quarter left in the game, the Patriots needed their D to come through with a three-and-out – and they got it.
Linebacker/co-captain Dont'a Hightower's return from a right knee ailment was limited, both in terms of snaps and productivity for most of the afternoon, until he was needed to help mount a comeback with a crucial sack (much like in Super Bowl LI).
Newton failed to see his wide open receiver Devin Funchess sprinting past Butler on the other side of midfield. Because of that, DE Trey Flowers was able to pressure Newton into an incompletion on 1st down. After a short run on 2nd down, Hightower finally brought Newton down at the Panthers' 14. New England got the ball back with Danny Amendola's fair catch precisely at the 50 with 7:27 to play.
Amendola then found himself on the receiving end of Brady's game-tying touchdown a few minutes later, meaning it was up to the defense to get the ball back.
Just when it looked like New England had successfully done so in nearly identical fashion to the previous possession – a Newton incompletion, short run, and Newton sack – Gilmore bailed out the Panthers with his second hands-to-the-face penalty of the day.
New England never got the ball back and were forced to watch the Panthers continue marching for the game-winning field goal.
"I felt like we had some momentum there," Amendola remarked. "We were rolling, moving the ball, but… It came down to a penalty on 3rd-and-long, and that kind of switched the momentum. It was a rough one."
The frustration was evident throughout the Patriots' post-game locker room. Yet, so was their professionalism. No one hid from reporters. No one pointed fingers directly at anyone else. If anything, they emphasized that they remain confident in themselves as individuals and collectively as a team.
"It'll take time," Gilmore predicted. "We know what we've got to do. We've just got to do it."
"I'm definitely confident. I love the guys I come to work with every day," stated safety/co-captain Duron Harmon. "We've got a lot of great players, guys willing to work. Just have to work harder. The leaders have to lead and guys have to play better."
"We always have a sense of urgency here, but you have to be patient, too," added Gronkowski. "We have to keep putting the work in. We've got a lot of good players. They all work hard. They're all great to play with. I'm definitely confident in our defense. As an offense, we have to keep putting up points and let the defense do what they've got to do. I'm confident in all our players. They're all good dudes."
That, they may be.
But at the moment, they're just not playing good enough football.