To those who say the Patriots should be 9-1, or at least should have been given another shot at the end zone on Monday night, the rest of the world proclaims: Spygate. Tuck Game. Brady Rules. And on and on.
Yes, the Patriots may have wound up on the short end of the karma stick on Monday night against the Panthers, but bad calls happen to every team at some point. And games ending with complaints about whether a penalty flag should have been thrown are far different than games that end with actual blown calls.
Monday night’s ending was a rough one. It’s pretty obvious something was done to keep Rob Gronkowski from getting to the Tom Brady pass that ended up being intercepted to end it all, and by the rulebook, that means some kind of penalty should have been called (Pass interference? Holding? Sure. Either one works.). But the fact that it wasn’t — and in a season where the Patriots have already absorbed one other dubious call — shouldn’t be too upsetting for New England fans.
The Patriots are still in good position to take the AFC East. Only two games remaining on their schedule (Denver and Baltimore) should give them trouble, and although a No. 1 or No. 2 seed will take some work, New England is still set up well to get into the playoffs and have a good first-round matchup. A regular-season loss stinks, and, coupled with the Jets loss that still has Pats fans chafing, it could dent New England’s overall record and playoff positioning. But this is the time of year when it’s OK for karma to go the other way, and for the Patriots to know that they can’t skate by on less than a complete performance.
While Monday’s non-call is attracting justifiable attention, most who watched the excellent matchup between the Patriots and Panthers are also noting that this tight game had too many big plays for the entire result to depend on the final call. It was a rotten way to end the game, but it was again one of those games that the Patriots could have put away. Untimely penalties, another untimely Stevan Ridley fumble and a few instances of a lack of execution (taking a field goal on Brady’s masterful fourth-quarter drive the worst) were the biggest contributors to New England’s loss.
What has the Patriots upset is not so much that the game was taken away on the call, but rather that the Patriots clawed back from those mistakes and still put themselves in position to win. It was ridiculous that New England was even in the red zone with three seconds left to play. Brady started the last drive with 59 seconds on the clock — 59 seconds! He stuffed 12 plays into that final drive, which almost died on the first set of downs. Brady’s 23-yard completion to Gronkowski on 4th-and-10 was obscene. The fact that Brady had almost twice as many incompletions on the final drive as he had for the rest of the game shows how on fire he was, and the fact that he kept the drive alive when all those passes were being dropped (including one of Brady’s best tosses of the year to a grappling Shane Vereen) only further underscored what a killer drive Brady put together.
The Patriots knew they had put themselves in a bad position with their mistakes earlier in the game, but they replaced all that negativity on their final go down the field. What was so raw about the final non-call, then, was not that the Patriots didn’t goad the officials into tossing a flag (which appeared to be the basis of some of their offensive strategy earlier in the game) but that the Patriots were trying to execute and probably would have done it if not for the missed call. It was a missed call in the true sense of a missed call — not a receiver trying to pick up cheap yards, but a real, honest argument that the final play was drawn up perfectly and the final pass would have been caught if not for the other team’s having to resort to less than fair play to slow the machine.
Exacerbating the non-call, of course, was that a flag was thrown. An official saw something but didn’t stick to it, which only made it worse for Brady and the rest of the Patriots in knowing that it wasn’t a subjective call that didn’t go their way but rather a penalty that was truly missed.
These kind of losses sting. They’re unfair. But they’re also the kind that sink in real deep and remind teams that they can’t wait until the second half, or the final drive, because weird things happen that can make the margin of error even slimmer.
The Patriots and Panthers came into Monday night on even ground, with serious talent on both sides. It was a game that had to be won by one team, and Carolina put together one of its best efforts of the season while the Patriots made a few key mistakes. In the end, the Patriots lost the toss-up on karma — but it happened in such a way that will hopefully help New England in the long run, as these kinds of losses have a way of evening themselves out, and as these kind of close losses also have a way of pushing players. (And, if the league office has any sense, these kind of losses will get the officiating crews shored up before games really start to matter.)
The Patriots, a franchise that has always made the most of calls going its way, have taken some bad calls this year. But as Brady and Bill Belichick will attest, execution of said calls — or the many other, smaller parts of the game — is what makes the difference.
This one should sink in and burn for a while, but it’s not the worst thing to have players feel like they can’t let any play go, and that they have to fight for what’s theirs come playoff time. The Patriots missed out on a win, but a good team rarely sees something like this happen twice — especially if they play up to a place where a game can’t be decided by one bad call.
Complete games have a way of killing karma.