The loss, in and of itself, is not a significant setback, coming on the road against a strong team that was hungry for revenge and desperate for a win, but there are causes for concern for the defending Super Bowl champions.
New England's run game was stymied for the second week in a row, as the Panthers held Patriots RB Corey Dillon to 36 yards on 14 carries. After averaging 109 yards per start and 4.7 yards per rush in 2004, Dillon has only 99 yards in the season's first two games and per-carry average of only 2.7 yards.
Also, the defensive backfield is once again riddled with injuries. CB Randall Gay suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return. The team was already playing without cornerbacks Chad Scott and Tyrone Poole, who were both injured in the opener against the Raiders. Rookie safety James Sanders also missed the game with an injury. After breaking camp with six cornerbacks, the Patriots were down to three healthy bodies -- Asante Samuel, Duane Starks and Ellis Hobbs -- just halfway through their second game.
Punter Josh Miller also was hurt, suffering an apparent shoulder injury while trying to make a tackle. The extent of his injury is not known, but his loss would be a real blow. Miller averaged 48 yards on seven punts on Sunday and also kicked very well in the opener.
Another concern is the team's spotty coverage on kickoffs and punts. Carolina's Chris Gamble returned a second-quarter punt 76 yards, with Larry Izzo and Hobbs both missing tackles along the left sideline. Carolina's Steve Smith also averaged 17 yards on four punt returns (not including his returns of 27 and 77 yards that were called back on penalties.) The Patriots also surrendered a 35-yard kickoff return by Rod Smart.
The other major factor contributing to Sunday's loss -- penalties -- is less worrisome because it can be fixed.
The Patriots committed 12 penalties for 86 yards, and some of them really hurt.
The most painful might have been safety Eugene Wilson's pass interference penalty in the end zone with 1:54 remaining in the first half. Following Gamble's 76-yard punt return to the New England 13-yard line, the Patriots appeared to have made a critical defensive stand, forcing a 3rd-and-7. But Wilson was flagged for bumping Panthers WR Ricky Proehl, and the Panthers got the ball on the 1-yard line and quickly scored to take a 17-7 lead.
No less painful was a hands-to-the face penalty against LB Rosevelt Colvin with 7:13 remaining in the first quarter that negated an interception by Starks at the Carolina 47.
TE Daniel Graham and guard Russ Hochstein (substituting for the injured Stephen Neal) were each called for two false starts in the second half. The team totaled six false start penalties for the game.
"We need to play better," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick after the game. "Think we're going to win any more games playing like this? You can't play like this. We gotta play better. We gotta coach better. We gotta do a better job. This won't be good enough. It wasn't good enough today. It won't be good enough against anyone else either."
The Panthers took control in the third quarter by forcing a turnover and converting it for a critical touchdown. Patriots QB Tom Brady took a deep drop and was looking to his right when Panthers DE Mike Rucker beat Patriots tackle Matt Light and knocked the ball from Brady's hand as he reached back to pass. DE Julius Peppers picked up the ball and returned it to the New England 12. RB Stephen Davis gained 10 yards on the next play, setting up a touchdown that gave Carolina a 27-17 lead.
Just five minutes earlier, the Patriots had climbed back within three at 20-17 on a Mike Vrabel interception return for a touchdown.
After the subsequent fumble and touchdown, the Patriots had four more possessions, but they gained only 17 yards on 16 plays and never again advanced beyond their own 39-yard line.
While the Patriots had their problems on offense and special teams, the defense played very well, allowing only 250 yards. Davis averaged only 3.1 yards per carry (25 for 77) and QB Jake Delhomme, under constant pressure, completed only 11 of 26 passes for 154 yards with an interception and no touchdowns.
The Panthers converted only five of 14 third-down attempts, and there were some big defensive stops along the way. Early in the second quarter, a strong New England pass rush flushed Delhomme and forced him to throw incomplete on the run, ending a drive. On a third-and-8 midway through the third-quarter, Samuel made a great play to break up a Delhomme pass intended for Keary Colbert. Harrison also put a huge hit on Smith to stop him one yard short of a first down to halt a fourth-quarter drive.
Sunday's defeat -- only the third Patriots' loss in 36 games -- was more of a Panthers' success than a Patriots' failure. Carolina played stifling defense, holding New England to 288 yards and four-of-14 on third-down attempts.
"They played well," said Belichick. "They played a good football game. They played better then we did. They deserved to win. They outplayed us. They outcoached us. They outperformed us."
The Panthers got some great individual plays, including a diving interception by LB Will Witherspoon with 9:11 remaining in the second quarter. Rucker's forced fumble also was an outstanding play. Delhomme twice beat New England blitzes with great passes: a 12-yard throw on the run to TE Kris Mangum on a 3rd-and-8 and a 41-yarder to Proehl under heavy pressure in the pocket.
Brady had an up-and-down day, completing 23 of 44 passes for 270 yards and touchdown. He made an alert pass to WR Troy Brown on a blown coverage in the first quarter, and Brown raced 71 yards up the right sideline to the Carolina 1-yard line. Brady hit Graham for a touchdown on the next play.
Deion Branch had a team-leading eight catches for 60 yards. Brown had three receptions for 87 yards, and David Givens caught five for 56 yards.
The Patriots have their work cut out for the week ahead as they prepare to face the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 2-0 after beating the Texans 27-7 on Sunday. In their first two games, Pittsburgh has outscored its opponents 61-14.