CHARLOTTE -- Bring on the Broncos?
Hell, sure, bring on the Broncos.
Wait, you want to try pick through the rubble of what exactly went on Monday night in Carolina, three hours of tantric football-watching with a very unsatisfying ending?
You want to do that? Fine. We’ll go half-empty first. And we’ll start at the top, the head.
-- Aqib Talib got burned and then melted down, taking himself out of the game mentally because he got beaten twice by Steve Smith. A model corner and teammate for more than a year now, Talib’s hip is a concern going forward (he finished the game on the bench). And we’ll have to see if his behavior Monday was a bump in the road or some backsliding.
-- Stevan Ridley fumbled again, taking sure points off the board in the second quarter when he dropped it at the Carolina 13. You gotta love his fight. You gotta hate that he resists putting two hands on the ball with all his being.
-- Logan Mankins helped stall a second-quarter drive that had reached the Panthers’ 26 with an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. The Patriots were lucky to get three points out of that foray. For a captain to toss away momentum on the road with points at a premium against a very good defense is hard to excuse. Like Talib, it showed a lack of focus and a selfishness, really.
-- The third-down defense was ugly. Carolina went 8-for-11. You knew coming in that sustaining drives was the Panthers’ offensive thing. And their main way of doing that was relying on Cam Newton to create. The Patriots played enough mobile quarterbacks this year to know better than to give Newton running lanes. But the Patriots did that. He got 24 on a third-and-6 when Don’t’a Hightower left his rush lane. He got 14 on a third-and-7 in the third when he made almost the entire Patriots front-seven miss him. And he got 15 in the fourth on another third-and-6 scramble when Rob Ninkovich overpursued.
“Too many drives, too many long drives extended,” said Ninkovich. “When you look at what they do well, they have the most time of possession in the league and keep your offense off the field. We gotta play better than that, we can’t let those scramble plays happen. That’s on me, that’s on the D-line.”
-- Big picture?
Well, the Patriots have three losses now, all against teams that are .500 or better. The only team above .500 the Patriots have beaten is New Orleans. In order to beat the better teams, the Patriots can’t beat themselves. And in their losses to the Bengals, Jets and Panthers, they have.
The Patriots aren’t going to be good enough defensively for the rest of the season to withstand stupidity that takes points off the board. Sorry. That’s a fact. When you take out two Pro Bowlers – Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo – and have a seemingly brittle shutdown corner in Talib, that side of the ball is going to need some help.
Brilliant as Cam Newton was on Monday night, if the offense didn’t blunder, Cam Newton would have been the losing quarterback.
-- The offense is just scraping the surface so far. Shane Vereen is a complete headache for defenses, Gronk be Gronk, Brady has confidence in Aaron Dobson, Amendola is reliable as hell when out there, Julian Edelman is a discreet weapon and the running game has a pounding back and a slasher.
-- The wailing about Brady’s decline is squelched now that people realize it wasn’t him but the lack of versatile and experienced weapons over the first seven games or so.
-- While the defense is going to need propping up down the stretch, it is not bereft of playmakers, beginning with Chandler Jones. Between Jones, Ninkovich, McCourty, Talib and the stray big play from Logan Ryan or Kyle Arrington, there is enough there for the Patriots to take advantage of if they can stay away from a quarterback like Newton who can exploit the Patriots shortcomings at linebacker.
-- Finally, the Patriots -- in each of their losses -- were throwing for the winning score as time ran out. In other words, they don’t ever get blown away. All they’ve been through this regular season -- the big win in Atlanta when the Falcons still had Julio Jones, the win over New Orleans at the last minute, the losses to the Jets on a bizarre flag, the loss to Carolina with another bizarre call at the end -- should steel the Patriots' nerve. It should toughen them up mentally.
Monday night was a bitter loss. Had the Patriots played a little smarter, a little more composed, they would probably be 8-2. The offense got a reminder that this is its team from here on out. The defense -- against the best teams -- is going to get abused.
The defense, by and large, got the Patriots seven wins and bought the team time. Now, the offense has to answer the bell.
Monday night, it didn’t. But not because it couldn’t, as was the case earlier in the year.
Standing at his locker after the game, Brady was perturbed about this one that got away. But he also added this:
“We got some good football ahead of us.”