In this week leading up to Sunday’s game, just about everything was looking up for the Patriots. On offense, Pro Bowl right tackle Marcus Cannon was set to come back and fix a slumping offensive line, while cornerback Eric Rowe and Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower also came back after missing Week 3 against Houston. For a team so badly depleted by injuries this early in the season, the return of these important players looked to provide the boost desperately needed at their respective positions, but the same problems from the Houston game persisted against superior dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Both teams entered Foxboro with 2-1 records, yet both played uncharacteristically in their first three games. For Carolina, it was their anemic offense, failing to score more than 14 points in each game. New England’s key issues lurked largely on the other side of the ball, ranking dead last in the league in both points allowed and yards allowed. Needless to say, both teams were searching for their opportunity to confidently bounce back after their slow starts to the season.
The start of the game saw New England and Carolina trading blows, with each team scoring field goals in the first quarter, and a touchdown apiece early in the second quarter. A highlight of the first quarter was Malcolm Butler’s interception after a poor deep throw from Cam Newton to Damiere Byrd, which was the only interception from either team all game.
The Panthers took a lead into halftime with a ten-yard strike from Newton to wideout Devin Funchess, who used all of his 6″5 frame to beat up on Patriots corner Eric Rowe’s coverage throughout the afternoon. The second swing in momentum came out early in the second half, with Trey Flowers recovering a Jonathan Stewart fumble deep inside New England territory, though the Patriots offense failed to turn the takeaway into points and punted. Carolina pounded in another touchdown to take a 23-16 lead on the ensuing drive with a strong rushing game from Stewart and quarterback Cam Newton, who found Devin Funchess again for a 16-yard score.
Carolina’s big target receivers in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess proved to be too much for the shorter, slower New England secondary to handle. Benjamin caught four passes for 104 yards receiving, while Funchess caught seven passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers were also brutal on the ground, combining for 140 yards. Cam Newton rushed for 44 yards, and it was enough for New England to respect his ability to tuck and run. The Patriots’ run defense was so porous that Panthers head coach Ron Rivera called multiple plays for Newton to take it and run, especially in important yardage situations late in the game.
The ineptitude of the New England defense was unable to affect Tom Brady and the offense, who quickly turned a 30-16 deficit late in the third quarter to a tie game in the fourth with plenty of time to spare. Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Dion Lewis were essential in keeping the Patriots in the game within range. Receiver Danny Amendola single-handedly (actually, he needed both of his hands) helped tie the game for the Patriots with three clutch catches deep in Carolina territory, especially at the goal line on 4th down, as Tom Brady found him in the back of the end zone to make it 30-30 with three minutes to go in the game after a Gostkowski extra point.
The Patriots defense then broke down to Carolina’s rush attack. Jonathan Stewart picked up two game-deciding first downs on the ground, helped by two poorly-timed holding calls on New England’s Patrick Chung and Stephon Gilmore. These were enough for Carolina’s Graham Gano to seal the game with a 48-yard field goal. Penalties were the name of the game for the Patriots’ defense, and they came at the worst times. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was unable to play his usual handsy man-to-man coverage with a stricter officiating crew this week, and he could not adjust. Safety Patrick Chung was picked on in pass coverage again this week, and linebacker Elandon Roberts left the game in the third quarter due to injury.
The Patriots are in dangerous waters (no pun intended) at 2-2 traveling to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday night. The short week coupled with injuries may spell trouble for a team that is still figuring itself out, especially on defense. If adjustments on defense are in order, coordinator Matt Patricia needs every second of practice time to make it happen. Unquestionably, the play from linebackers, safeties, and corners has to improve if the Patriots hope to climb back into the hunt for the top seed in the AFC. For now, the focus is on a young and hungry Buccaneer team.
*Photo: Panthers receiver Devin Funchess (17) scores over Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe (25) in the second quarter. (Steve Senne, AP)