There was a flash of yellow, and it seemed as though somehow, impossibly, Tom Brady and the Patriots had done it again.
Down 24-20 with 59 seconds left, New England needed to drive 80 yards in 59 seconds with three timeouts. Even for Brady -- he of the 28 fourth-quarter comebacks and 39 game-winning drives -- and an offense that had scored on each of its three second-half drives against the Panthers, it was a long shot.
Yet after completions to Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and Aaron Dobson, the Patriots had the ball on Carolina's 18-yard line with three seconds left. They had a chance.
On the last play, though, chaos reigned. Brady targeted Gronkowski in the end zone for the potential game-winning score despite the fact that the big tight end was blanketed by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. In fact, Kuechly wrapped Gronkowski in his arms and shuffled him to the back of the end zone, it appeared.
Brady's pass was picked off by Carolina defensive back Robert Lester, but soon after the interception was made, a flag was thrown by back judge Terrence Miles. He witnessed Kuechly draped on Gronkowski and initially believed he saw a penalty. A pass interference call would have put the ball on the one-yard line for one play.
After officials huddled to discuss the penalty, the flag was picked up. It was deemed there was no infraction, according to referee Clete Blakeman. The interception stood, and the game was over. The Panthers won, 24-20.
"I wish it wouldn't have come down to that," Brady said when asked about the no-call. "I think there are plenty of plays we could have made. But it did, and they are going to make a call or they are not going to make a call. We can play better than that."
Brady was irate immediately after it was announced the flag was picked up, screaming as he followed officials off the Bank of America Stadium field.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he never received an explanation as to why there was no penalty called after a flag was thrown.
"There was no explanation given to me," Belichick said. "Officials ran off the field. I didn't see anything. Been through that before. Last time I tried to ask an official about a call, that was the wrong thing to do so I have no idea."
Belichick made headlines by grabbing an official early last season in Baltimore when it appeared as though a game-winning field goal by the Ravens may have missed.
"Didn't get one [explanation] tonight," Belichick quipped. "Didn't get one at the Baltimore game."
The Patriots (7-3) may have had a gripe with the referees long before the last play of the game. On the Panthers (7-3) final drive, four plays before Ted Ginn's game-winning touchdown catch-and-run, Patriots safety Devin McCourty was called for defensive holding on Carolina tight end Greg Olsen. McCourty made a point to show his hands to officials as the play developed, perhaps because, as replays indicated, Olsen grabbed McCourty's arm, not the other way around.
That came on third down, keeping Carolina's drive alive and allowing Cam Newton to find Ginn for a 25-yard score that gave the Panthers the lead and set the scene for New England's dramatic final drive.
Newton lived up to the marquee billing he received leading up to Monday night's showdown with Brady, going 19-for-28 for 209 yards and 3 touchdowns passing. He also ran for 62 yards, many of those coming on third-down conversions to extend Panthers drives.
"I don't think I got any more nails," Newton said after his team survived New England's final flurry. "I was biting them all night. We knew we were going to have this type of game. The defense stood up at the end."
The Panthers defense did its part. But more than their defensive schemes, and more than the officials' calls, New England's mistakes -- in the first half, especially -- were what laid the foundation for the loss.
On their first drive of the game, the Patriots were inching toward Stephen Gostkowski's field goal range when Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy sacked Brady after the Panthers showed blitz and Nate Solder blocked no one.
On their second drive, Stevan Ridley lost a fumble deep inside Panthers territory, which erased what would have been at least a Patriots field goal.
"Coach stressed that coming into this game, they were going to try to create turnovers and strip the ball," Ridley said. It's unacceptable."
On their third drive, a Logan Mankins personal foul penalty backed the Patriots up from the Panthers 26-yard line to the Panthers' 41. A Gostkowski 42-yard field goal put the Patriots on the board, but they still trailed 10-3 going into halftime.
Mankins disputed his personal foul penalty after the game: "They told me I punched a guy in the face. I don't recall punching a guy in the face so it is what it is. It didn't happen so it is what it is. It's one of those things, they make the call, and whatever it is, you gotta live with it."
Despite his protest -- he also complained about the final play of the game saying, "I'm fine calling a penalty. Just make sure it was a penalty when you do call it. Don't get flag happy" -- Mankins admitted he and his teammates made too many mistakes early on.
"We felt like we let one get away," he explained. "I feel we should've won that game."
Brady went 29-for-40 for 296 yards with a touchdown and a pick. He agreed his team could have done more.
"When you play good teams on the road, you gotta play good for 60 minutes and we didn't," he said. "We played OK, but we shot ourselves in the foot too many times."
They lost their cool, too. Carolina's first score of the game came in the first quarter on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Brandon LaFell, but completions to Steve Smith, and a personal foul penalty from Aqib Talib, set up the score. Smith caught balls for 42 yards and six yards, both with Talib in coverage, and Talib blew a gasket after the second completion. He lost his helmet and shoved the traditionally mouthy Smith before being pulled to the sidelines by a Patriots assistant.
Talib was asked after the game if he and Smith shared words after the game to discuss their on-the-field discord.
"Hell no," said Talib, who played against Smith in NFC South matchups when he was a member of the Buccaneers. "Ain't nothing to talk about."
Talib extended another Panthers drive in the second quarter when he was called for holding Smith on a third-and-long play. Kicker Graham Gano finished that drive with a 42-yard boot to make the score 10-0.
In the second half the Patriots offense got out of its own way and got in rhythm. Gronkowski finished off an 80-yard drive by carrying three hapless Panthers defenders into the end zone on an eight-yard catch to tie the score at 10-10.
Newton answered with a 15-yard scoring strike to Olsen on Carolina's next drive, but the Patriots quickly tied it again, 17-17, on a two-yard touchdown run from Ridley -- who was given a second chance to contribute after being benched briefly for his second-quarter fumble.
The Patriots took a 20-17 lead on a Gostkowski 26-yard field goal eight-and-a-half minutes into the final frame, leaving Newton ample time to put together his game-winning drive.
For Carolina's last trip down the field, it appeared as though New England's rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball finally caught up to them.
During the Ginn touchdown, Talib was on the sidelines after apparently re-aggravating his hip injury, and Alfonzo Dennard was back in New England nursing a knee issue. As a result, the Patriots employed Marquice Cole and Kyle Arrington as their corners -- and they got burned.
Newton dropped back from the Patriots 25-yard line, and hit receiver Ginn on a seven-yard hitch. Ginn made Arrington miss a tackle and sprinted into the end zone to give the Panthers the last score they would need to get their first home win on a Monday night since 2008.
Whether or not the Panthers had help from a fickle officiating crew mattered not to the Patriots. The visitors knew they did more than enough damage to themselves in the 59 minutes and 57 seconds leading up to the flag that never was.
"There was no flag," Gronkowski said when asked about the game's last play. "I'm not even sure why they threw it. It's no excuse. They're a good football team, they scored more points than us and beat us straight up."