…The Patriots had started each of their first four games with touchdowns on their opening drives, and New England should have had another such touchdown – or at the very least a goal-to-go set of downs – on the opening drive against Carolina. WR Brandin Cooks did a fantastic job of getting open for QB Tom Brady by running a precise fake of an out or corner route against Carolina CB James Bradberry, who bit hard on the move. Cooks quickly turned up-field and sprinted down the numbers with nothing but green turf ahead of him at about the Panthers' 20-yard line.
Brady's pass, however, was terribly underthrown and to Cooks' inside shoulder. Even if Cooks had been able to adjust in time to come down with the football, the errant throw allowed safety Kurt Coleman to enter the picture and likely take Cooks down inside the 5. But had the throw been on the money, Cooks would have scored without being touched.
…Brady was off all afternoon on many of his throws, but he was saved often by his receivers' great catches. TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Danny Amendola both had to contort their bodies awkwardly yet athletically to make big catches for first downs on that opening drive – a portent of things to come.
…New England attempted a rare (for them this season) blitz – and an even rarer blitz on a down other than 3rd-and-long – when the team sent LB Elandon Roberts as a late blitzer to join four down linemen rushing Newton on 1st-and-10 from Carolina's own 40. Roberts, however, was met at the line of scrimmage by rookie RB Christian McCaffrey. Roberts' momentum was immediately stopped by McCaffrey's textbook blitz pickup block, allowing Newton time to find TE Ed Dickson for a big gain.
The Patriots are in desperate need of more pass rush pressure, and while I liked the unpredictable call, its result was a disappointing one.
…Amendola was flagged for an offensive pass interference penalty on New England's second possession, which nullified what would have been a nice 14-yard catch for a 1st down by Gronk. Amendola ran straight up the field about six or seven yards before cutting his route inside. As he did so, he made contact with CB Kevon Seymour. In fact, he locked arms with the defender as Gronk was crossing in the opposite direction just in front of the pair. Looked like the right call by Jerome Boger's officiating crew.
…Brady was sacked on the very next play when he held onto the football too long and tried to dodge a four-man rush by the Panthers, which his o-line had actually handled well to that point. Brady's decision to try to run after pump faking was what got him into trouble.
…CB Malcolm Butler's INT on the ensuing Carolina possession was the end result of a bizarre start to the play for both teams. With Newton in the shotgun, the Panthers had a trips right, with WR Devin Funchess as the flanker to that side. Butler was guarding him. The middle man of the three receivers was Damiere Byrd, covered by CB Eric Rowe. At the snap, Funchess took a hard step forward, then stopped and turned to look back at Newton. Funchess didn't move from his spot. He just stood there.
Meantime, Byrd ran to Rowe's outside shoulder and raced down the numbers, where Funchess would likely have been headed. Rowe kept pace, but Butler decided to help out, since Funchess looked entirely uninvolved in the play. This gave Butler a chance to beat Byrd downfield to the spot of Newton's throw, which may have been overthrown given Rowe's tight coverage or perhaps a great completion if Butler hadn't been in position.
Looked more like an instinctive reaction on Butler's part, or perhaps a communication breakdown between Butler and Rowe. Newton could have easily decided to dump the ball off to Funchess at the line of scrimmage for what would have been an easy first-down pickup on 3rd-and-4, since he was by that time completely uncovered. New England lucked out on that one.
…It was nice to see FB James Develin, who's often called on to do the dirty work of blocking for other backs, be on the receiving end of two first-quarter Brady passes Sunday. He's become quite a nice addition to this offense over the past few years.
…The OPI call against Gronk on the first play of the 2nd quarter was unjustified. A ticky-tack penalty at best.
…Another example of Brady's poor precision Sunday came later in that same drive when he missed an open rookie TE Jacob Hollister in the end zone. Hollister made a nice move to get separation from his defender at the line of scrimmage. Hollister, in a three-point stance, chipped DE Julius Peppers, then head-faked like he was going to run an out-route, which fooled Bradberry, the corner, for a moment. Hollister changed course with a quick inside dash and was open by a couple of steps in front of Bradberry. However, Brady's throw sailed high and wide of Hollister. Should have been an easy touchdown pass.
…Both teams did a nice job of using screens and misdirection plays to counter each other's blitzes and pass rushes throughout the afternoon. A classic example of this, from Carolina's perspective, came on Newton's TD throw to RB Fozzy Whittaker, who started the play in Carolina's backfield to Newton's shotgun right.
McCaffrey was split wide left, and his position caused confusion between safety Devin McCourty and CB Stephon Gilmore. At first, McCourty guarded him, but then Gilmore took McCourty's place, but McCaffrey motioned back to the other side of the formation. This led to further confusion between McCourty and Gilmore. Both defenders chased after McCaffrey, leaving the right side (Carolina's offensive left) wide open and uncovered. Gilmore, it appeared, should have been the one to stay home on that side to protect against Whittaker's catch-and-run. Instead, Whittaker faced no resistance as his convoy of blockers guided his easy path to the end zone.
This proved a horrible mistake, the first of many by Gilmore on the afternoon. By far, his worst day to date in a Patriots uniform.
…Brady's second takedown came again from a 4-man rush, but this time it was entirely the work of Peppers that deserves credit. Peppers came off the edge against RT Marcus Cannon, who missed the previous week's game with a concussion and an ankle injury. Peppers simply used his speed and good technique to duck under Cannon's would-be block to reach Brady just as he finished his backpedal. The QB had no chance to escape.
…DC Matt Patricia called another 1st-down blitz package, sending LB Dont'a Hightower this time, and it worked. Newton was chased down by LB Kyle Van Noy for a technical sack (stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain).
…New England's next blitz, on 3rd-and-8, should also have worked, but Rowe missed a tackle on Funchess, who took a short pass and then sped off for the remaining yardage and then some. Rowe did a poor job of wrapping up Funchess.
…Gilmore again looked lost and unsure of whom to cover when WR Kelvin Benjamin was left all alone on a 43-yard catch-and-run down the left side (where Gilmore had been lining up).
…A couple plays later, Gilmore and Rowe got their signals crossed again. It's unclear whose responsibility Funchess was after he motioned from right to left, but neither man reacted properly and the big receiver was left alone again, this time in the end zone for an easy Newton touchdown toss. Rowe gave chase, but it was far too late.
…Give credit where credit is due, and in this case, to the much-maligned Stephen Gostkowski. New England's trusty kicker proved why he is still this team's kicker in his 12th season. He was perfect on the afternoon, both on points-after and field goals – including his Patriots record-setting 58-yard boot, which might have been good from 70 yards away. Granted, he doinked the ball off the upright about halfway up the pole, but it was a clutch kick nonetheless.
…Nice punch-out forced fumble by DE Trey Flowers to thwart the Panthers' opening drive of the second half.
…A tandem effort by Peppers and former Patriots DT Kyle Love brought Brady down a third time. Peppers was met by Cannon at the snap, while Love engaged RG Shaq Mason 1-on-1. Love knifed between Mason and the back of Cannon, and along the way, appeared to shove Cannon in the back. This knocked Cannon off-balance and allowed Peppers to charge at Brady. Love came around Brady's back to ensure that he couldn't go any further.
…Gilmore clearly put his hands on Benjamin's facemask while guarding him on the ensuing Panthers possession. It was the first of two costly such mistakes by Gilmore in the game, and there was no arguing it. Gilmore explained later that he was just playing aggressively, but he needs to play within the rules as well and not put his hands that high up on an opponent. This miscue gave the Panthers a 1st down that they otherwise would not have had. Carolina would go on to score another touchdown on that same drive.
…Funchess ran a great route against Butler to score that next touchdown. The receiver planted hard with his right foot to make Butler think he was running a corner route, but instead cut back to the inside, giving himself just enough breathing room for Newton to fire a pass to him down the seam. The ball was slightly behind Funchess, but he made a nice grab with Butler nearly draped on his back as he crossed the goal line.
…Even though he didn't find the end zone against Carolina, I thought Mike Gillislee might have had his best day running the football for New England. He showed why the Patriots coveted him this past offseason with strong and decisive running between the tackles, along with a deceptive burst when hitting the hole. Gillislee provided the Patriots' offense with balance and a change-of-pace option on the ground.
…By far, the most activity we've seen this season from RB Dion Lewis. He looked fresh, carrying just four times, but for a good 4.5-yard average and a speedy 8-yard touchdown run.
…Great individual pressure by DE Trey Flowers forced Newton into an incomplete pass at the start of the next Panthers possession. Ditto for Hightower two plays later, when he used a brilliant spin move to get free of the right tackle and take Newton down to force a Panther punt.
…Great vision by Amendola to see a vacant lot in the back of the end zone on the final touchdown of the day. From the slot, he faked his man to the outside before darting back inside and across the back line of the end zone, where Brady eventually saw him and fired a strike for the tying score.
…Again, individual effort by rookie DE Deatrich Wise, rushing from the tackle spot, was the reason he was able to bring Newton down on 3rd down on the next (and final) Panthers drive. He just bull-rushed by the right guard. However, Gilmore again committed an untimely hands-to-the-face infraction. This one was even more forceful than the earlier initial penalty. No excuse, and it cost the Patriots because they would have gotten the ball back with great field position and likely a chance to win the game. Instead, Carolina continued their drive and kicked the game-winning field goal.