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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered and Patriots Playbook Fri Dec 03 - 10:00 PM | Mon Dec 06 - 05:55 PM

Game Observations: Patriots stay grounded in victory

2021-GameObservations-16x9

In retrospect, maybe Carolina should've started their backup QB after all. And maybe the Panthers waited too long to get their best player involved in the passing game.

All week, we were led to believe that P.J. Walker would start at quarterback for the Panthers, with Sam Darnold nursing both a concussion and a right (throwing) shoulder injury. However, Darnold was cleared of concussion protocols and given the go-ahead.

The Patriots visited Carolina armed with an extensive familiarity with Darnold from his years with the New York Jets, and it showed. He looked very much like the player whom New England victimized so frequently when Darnold was with Gang Green.

Meanwhile, running back Christian McCaffrey, to no one's surprise, came off injured reserve just in time for this game. Prior to getting injured in September, McCaffrey represented the lion's share of the Panthers' offensive output. He did so again on a glorious autumn Sunday down south in Charlotte, yet many of his yards gained came a little too late, after his team had fallen behind on the scoreboard and made too many mistakes to mount a realistic comeback.

This latest Patriots victory could be summarized thusly: a first half dominated by Patriots running backs; a second half, by New England defensive backs, J.C. Jackson in particular, who picked off a pair of Darnold passes when Carolina had driven into the Patriots' red zone.

New England rookie QB Mac Jones once again played a safe, efficient game when asked to throw, and thanks to stingy teammates on defense, his couple of glaring errors didn't cost the Patriots much on the scoreboard.

Mac Jones on the day

Table inside Article
Attempts Completions Yards Sacks/Yards TD Long INT
18 12 139 2/17 1 41 1

Mac Jones vs. CAR

Table inside Article
Total Throwaways Overthrows Underthrows Batted Passes Drops Passes Defensed INT
6 1 2 1 1 0 0 1

Mac Jones in 2021

Table inside Article
Total Throwaways Overthrows Underthrows Batted Passes Drops Passes Defensed INT
96 10 30 13 4 7 25 7

Oh, yes … the Stephon Gilmore factor. This marked the first time the Patriots faced him since trading the cornerback to Carolina earlier this season. Gilmore did make one big play, but it wasn't nearly enough to inspire his team's offense to do its part.

The game actually started off very sloppily for both teams. By halftime, they'd committed a combined nine accepted penalties (five for New England). In the end, though, New England overcame them to make quick work of the Panthers by keeping the ball mostly on the ground. Some other thoughts on what contributed to the win that keeps the Patriots, thus far, undefeated on the road this season:

* * *

The Patriots seem to have settled on this offensive line combination: left tackle Isaiah Wynn, left guard Ted Karras, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason, and right tackle Mike Onwenu. These five have started three straight games now at their respective positions. Overall, they had a solid afternoon, though it wasn't perfect. Wynn committed a false start on the first drive, continuing a troubling trend of almost weekly penalties for him. Karras then was flagged for a holding infraction on the very next play. Both contributed to New England having to punt away the first drive.

Carolina's two leading sackers, linebacker Haason Reddick and defensive end Brian Burns, each managed to bring down Jones Sunday. Reddick's came early when he was virtually unblocked off the right edge during the second Patriots series. On the third New England possession, Burns came from the left side and strip-sacked Jones, who never saw it coming and lost the fumble near midfield. The Panthers recovered, but could only manage a field goal out of it.

This O-line unit also had a bit of difficulty run-blocking on up-the-middle plays early on, so, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels began calling more run plays to the outside and on formations that stretched the Panther D. This proved the right call.

* * *

The running back committee of Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden, and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson took over the second quarter. They combined for 22 first-half touches (runs and receptions) and each man had big plays that gashed the Panthers' D, especially in open space. Harris pitched in with the day's first touchdown, his fifth consecutive game finding the end zone.

The Harris-Bolden-Stevenson triumvirate finished with nearly 150 combined rushing yards and close to 75 more through the air. Stevenson in particular had by far his most impressive game as a pro, with a long run of 13 yards and a long catch of 41. Bolden had a long run of 16 yards and a big, 28-yard reception.

By game's end, however, the news wasn't so positive for this trio. Stevenson left the game after being shaken up on a fourth-quarter carry. A short time later, Harris was hurt when he got slammed to the turf by Burns in the mid-fourth quarter. The game was out of reach for Carolina at that point, but this coming week, we'll have to monitor the health statuses of Harris and Stevenson.

* * *

Kudos in order again for the Patriots defense overall, which held the Panthers to 65 total first-half yards. Darnold had almost no open receivers throughout the game, and his leading pass catcher, D.J. Moore, was held by the New England secondary to just three catches (on seven targets) for 32 yards.

Rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore may have saved a touchdown when he batted down a Darnold pass at the start of the second quarter. McCaffrey was wide open heading for the end zone and Darnold was looking his way, but Barmore's big right arm knocked down the intended pass at the line of scrimmage. New England's second-round draft choice this year, Barmore's been steadily improving each week and becoming a reliable contributor on this defense. He also batted down a second Darnold pass in the late third quarter.

* * *

It didn't help Carolina's cause offensively that the Panthers lost two offensive line starters during the game. Center Matt Paradis went down with a knee injury on Panthers opening drive and never returned. In the third quarter, left tackle Cameron Irving left the game because of an injury after Gilmore had given his team the ball back with an interception of Jones. Edge rusher Matthew Judon would later exploit Irving's backup, Dennis Daley, by making a great move to get into the backfield and sack Darnold.

* * *

Kick & punt return specialist Gunner Olszewski got walloped on his 30-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. Looked very much like a concussion and he was later announced to have a head injury that would keep him out of the remainder of the contest. "Head injury" is usually code for concussion. Jakobi Meyers replaced him as the return man on the next opportunity, a Panthers punt midway through the second quarter, and for the remaining return opportunities in this game.

* * *

Gilmore's interception came on a 2nd-and-7 play, which is noteworthy because Panthers head coach Matt Rhule told reporters earlier in the week that Gilmore would likely play only on third downs. He wound up playing on more than third downs, but wasn't a factor in the game other than that one play.

* * *

Linebacker Jamie Collins had an INT of his own, which came immediately after a tackle-for-loss against McCaffrey in the third quarter. Collins has had an otherwise quiet return to New England this season, his third stint with the club.

* * *

Kicker Nick Folk had made 28 consecutive field goals in a row on the road, the longest active streak in the NFL. It was snapped, though, when he pushed a 54-yarder wide right in the late fourth quarter.

* * *

Powerful Play/Player of the Game presented by Enel

J.C. Jackson's 88-yard third-quarter interception return for a touchdown. Just when it looked like the Panthers offense was putting together a sustained scoring drive, it came crashing down on them. At the Patriots 20-yard line and down just one score, Carolina was poised possibly to tie up the game, but Darnold tossed a poorly-thrown pass intended for his tight end, Ian Thomas. Jackson collected the errant throw and darted nearly the length of the field to the end zone.

Incidentally, Jackson missed two days of practice this week due to an illness, but he showed no ill effects of it on this game-changing play.

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