When the Patriots ran:
There were times when Mike Gillislee looked like he could become a factor in the game. Gillislee hit the hole hard early on and broke some tackles while picking up positive yardage. But he was also stuffed for some negative runs and eventually was a non-factor due to the score. He finished 49 yards on 12 carries – decent numbers in limited work – but he failed to find the end zone on his one goal line carry and didn't impact the game. The same could be said of the Patriots ground game in general, which was only used sparingly against the tough Panthers front. As a team New England picked up 80 yards 19 carries for a decent 4.2-yard average, but the Patriots never established any consistency in the running game and therefore it was never a factor.
When the Patriots passed:
Tom Brady wasn't quite as sharp as he has been but he still managed to lead a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives to tie the game. Brady misfired on several potential big plays – one early to Brandin Cooks down the seam and another in the second half to a wide-open Dwayne Allen near the sideline. There were others as well, but when the Patriots needed it, Brady delivered. He completed 32 of 45 passes for 307 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was nearly intercepted by safety Mike Adams twice, and also made life difficult on Rob Gronkowski (four catches, 80 yards) on a couple of occasions. At times he seemed to anticipate pressure as well. He was sacked three times but at least one was the result of him leaving a clean pocket early when he didn't find an open target. The Panthers were without starting corner Daryl Worley, who was inactive, and safety Kurt Coleman, who left the game in the first half due to injury. But the Panthers competed throughout, and did a good job tackling the receivers in the open field. That was especially evident on James White, who caught 10 passes but for a largely ineffective 47 yards.
When the Panthers ran:
Carolina wants to be a physical running team but with two starting offensive linemen out of action that was difficult. Center Ryan Kalil was inactive and guard Trai Turner left with an injury. Still the Panthers grinded out some tough yardage on the ground, some of that coming from Cam Newton. He picked up 44 yards on eight carries, six of which were designed runs. Jonathan Stewart added 68 yards on 14 carries, including a key 15-yard romp on the final drive. Overall Carolina piled up 140 yards on the ground on 29 carries for a healthy 4.8-yard average. Again the Patriots front seven was inconsistent handling the run game, even with Dont'a Hightower back in the lineup, albeit on a part-time basis. The lone bright spot was the work done on rookie Christian McCaffrey, who was bottled up and finished with just 16 yards on six carries for a 2.7-yard average. Otherwise, the Panthers were able to move it effectively on the ground and stayed out of long-yardage situations.
When the Panthers passed:
The aforementioned steady production on the ground that helped keep Newton in manageable third downs resulted in Carolina converted 6 of 9 attempts and punting just once all afternoon. Newton completed 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns plus an interception. Many of those conversions came on short, quick throws to wide open receivers – particularly Devin Funchess, who finished with seven catches for 70 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Stephon Gilmore had a nightmare of an afternoon. He appeared to suffer from a few mental lapses that caused him to be out of position on some big plays, like Kelvin Benjamin's 43-yard catch in the second quarter and Fozzy Whittaker's 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Gilmore also committed a pair of costly hands to the face penalties on third downs that allowed Carolina to keep scoring drives alive. Benjamin caught four balls for 104 yards and tight end Ed Dickson dominated Devin McCourty to the tune of three catches for 62 yards. For an offense that had just three touchdowns coming in, Newton & Co. racked up 444 yards and 33 points.
This battle was largely even. McCaffrey had punt returns of 12 and 13 yards off a pair of low Ryan Allen punts, but the Panthers Michael Palardy shanked a 35-yarder late to allow the Patriots to start their final drive in Carolina territory at the 49. Jonathan Jones was flagged for interfering with McCaffrey when he was trying to field a punt, giving the Panthers good field position at the 38. Stephen Gostkowski again tried to pin the Panthers deep with high, short kickoffs but the coverage managed to do so just once, dropping McCaffrey at the 16. But he banked a franchise-best 58-yard field goal off the right upright while Graham Gano missed a PAT. Gano atoned for that miscue, however, by drilling the game-winner down the middle from 48 yards out. Overall a pretty even day on special teams.