Confusing end clouds fascinating game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Were the New England Patriots robbed of a final chance to defeat the Carolina Panthers on Monday night?

It’s a question that will resonate after the team’s 24-20 loss at Bank of America Stadium. There was more interest in referee Clete Blakeman’s explanation for what unfolded at the end of the game than where the focus should have been -- on a great game between two teams featuring quarterbacks at opposite ends of their career arcs: New England’s old reliable Tom Brady and Carolina’s up-and-coming Cam Newton.

An enraged Brady sprinted toward Blakeman after the game, marking the second time in five weeks the Patriots felt wronged by an official’s ruling. We all remember the first time, against the New York Jets on Oct. 20, when the Patriots were flagged for pushing a teammate on a field goal attempt in overtime.

This time it was a call-turned-non-call.

How could an official throw a penalty flag for defensive pass interference on tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, then have it picked up?

The penalty would have given the Patriots one final play at the 1-yard line, with no time left, with a chance to win. But instead, the officials gathered and overruled back judge Terrence Miles’ flag.

Game over, with Blakeman making the misstep of failing to immediately explain why, which led to widespread confusion at the turn of events.

“The back judge [Miles] saw that there was contact and the defender was not playing the ball and that led him to throw [the flag] for defensive pass interference,” Blakeman explained later in a pool report distributed to all media members.

“There were two officials that came in. One was the umpire [Garth DeFelice] and the other one was our side judge [Greg Meyer] and there was a discussion at that point as to the, in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location.

“So it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.”

Blakeman said the officials reviewed the play after the game and felt what they saw on review mirrored their on-field discussion. Asked if he was confident the call was right, Blakeman’s response wasn’t entirely convincing.

“Yeah, in review, yeah. I think so,” he answered. “You never like to end the game with some controversy like that on a call, but I’m pleased that our officiating crew got together and communicated and discussed it and, ultimately, I believe we got it right. So that to me is the part that is coming away from it. I’m pleased that our crew was able to discuss it and make the call right.”

That final point will be debated, as some in the Twitterverse -- including former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira -- felt the officials should have stuck with their original call.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick naturally seemed peeved at the way things went down.

“There was no explanation given to me. The officials ran off the field,” he said in his postgame remarks, which came well before Blakeman’s explanation was disseminated to the media.

“The last time I started asking an official about a call, that was the wrong thing to do, so I have no idea. We’ve been down that road before. Didn’t get one [an explanation] tonight. Didn’t get one at the Baltimore game [in 2012 and was fined]. I guess that’s the way we do it.”

Running back Stevan Ridley said he wasn’t surprised about the flag being picked up.

“Not really, man. We’re not at home,” he said.

Brady, who was breathing fire as he surged toward Blakeman after the game, was more composed by the time he met with reporters.

“I didn’t really see the play either so I don’t know whether it was a good call or a bad call,” he said. “But we had plenty of chances. I’m not making any excuses.

“[Gronkowski] was kind of weaving in and out of there and I didn’t really want to throw it over his head and out of bounds. So I was a little indecisive. It wasn’t a great throw. No excuses. It should have been a better throw.”

“I thought it was going to be pass interference,” Gronkowski said. “But you can’t do anything about it. That’s not where the game is won or lost.”

True, had the Patriots made a few more plays earlier, it wouldn’t have come to that, which was echoed in various corners of the team’s locker room.

But the controversial call-turned-non-call still overshadowed where the focus should have been -- on a great game between a strong Carolina team that showed it is for real and a resilient Patriots club that is no easy knockout.