CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's time to assess the New England Patriots following their 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night. While the result was a disappointment and an official's non-call was a big storyline, that doesn't overshadow several other issues for the team.
Let's get right into them, as this is a week to quickly turn the page.
Q. As a New England native, I have been a diehard Patriots fan forever. I have also lived near Charlotte for 15 years, so my disappointment at the Patriots loss is softened a bit by seeing the Panthers really step up and play a great game. I think we saw what has been the Pats' problem all year. The offense has trouble finding its rhythm (which can then disappear at any moment), and the defense just cannot be relied upon to make that big stop when needed. That will continue to hurt them later in the season. I am sure there will be a lot of talk about that picked-up flag. Nine times out of 10, the refs will call interference even though the ball was probably uncatchable. This time they did not, but when you are down by four points with three seconds left, I do not think you can say that one questionable call was the deciding factor. Tough loss against a good team. Several missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. Bring on Denver. -- John S. (Concord, N.C.)
A. Nicely said, John. Even if the Patriots got the call, they still would have had to punch it in from the 1, and as we saw on the third-and-1 play on the drive before that they were stopped. I thought both teams were in it, and if one or two plays go in a different direction, maybe the result is different. That's an evenly matched game, and while the Patriots had opportunities they couldn't capitalize on, I also give the Panthers some credit. The Patriots' 36-game streak of forcing at least one turnover was broken and Carolina had a significant role in that being the case.
Q. Mike, go listen to Steve Young and Trent Dilfer's take on the Gronk mauling in the end zone. They're exactly right. The back judge who was right there did his job. The ref, yards away, made a judgment call that Gronk isn't a good enough athlete and doesn't have a big enough catch radius to compete for that pass if he wasn't ridden five yards. This was a travesty. -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A. Tman, I thought it should have been a penalty. They had the call right initially.
Q. Hi Mike, given the opportunity as one of the two pool reporters after the game, why did you not ask the obvious question to referee Clete Blakeman: How could Gronk possibly come close to the ball if he was being held? -- mrrandy (San Francisco)
A. The toughest part for me in those situations is not having the benefit of truly seeing the play before going in to ask the questions. Those at home had a much better feel for what had unfolded at that point than I did, as it's a pretty wild scramble after the game and then to make those reports happen.
Q. Mike, on the third-and-1 play in the red zone in the fourth quarter, what is the logic of the play selection: a pass into the end zone, not go for the first down? -- Roberta
A. Roberta, that was a play they'd obviously like back. They had been running it well. Seemed like a lower-percentage play -- the first option wasn't there, so Tom Brady ultimately threw it through the end zone -- when there were other possibilities that would have been a better choice to pick up the necessary yard.
Q. Mike, no doubt the Pats got robbed on the last play of the game, but I'm more upset with Josh McDaniels. With LeGarrette Blount pounding the ball, with the offensive line finally mashing the Panthers' defensive line, why pass on third-and-1? In a game where points were at a premium, why settle for three points? -- Gregory (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A. Gregory, sometimes those plays can be checks at the line based on the defensive look, but I'd agree that from a general sense, a run seemed like a better call there.
Q. Hey Mike, tough loss to a tough opponent. Figured it would come down to the last possession. Pats had their chances early in the first half. Seems to me they really need to figure a way to start faster. The defense is not what it was earlier in the year, and we are back to the offense carrying the load with all the injuries on the defensive side. It seems to me that their best offensive production is when they go to the hurry-up, no-huddle. Do you think they should go to that offensive mode more often? -- Andy (Virginia Beach, Va.)
A. Andy, I don't think hurrying it up, in and of itself, is the bottom-line answer. I'd focus more on the execution of the plays and elimination of some critical mistakes. I thought they strung together some long, impressive drives against Carolina but they just self-destructed at times. In the end, I'm not sure Stevan Ridley doesn't fumble or Nate Solder doesn't miss that block if they're hurrying up. So while that approach can be effective at times, I think there's more to it than that.
Q. Mike, despite the close loss to the Panthers, the Patriots arguably looked a lot stronger on offense, both running and passing the ball. They did much better on third downs in particular. Do you think this bodes well for their upcoming matchup versus the Broncos, a game that arguably will be primarily an offensive shootout? -- Warren C. (Boston)
A. Warren, I thought the Patriots did some good things offensively. The red zone was obviously a disappointment, and a few penalties popped up that hurt them, but that was a good defense they were playing against. I think the Patriots can move the ball and score some points against the Broncos.
Q. Hi Mike, after watching Aqib Talib, I find it hard to believe the Pats would want to sign him long term. Not only did he lose his cool, but he had trouble keeping up with a 34-year-old receiver.Thoughts? -- Rick (San Diego)
A. Rick, that wasn't Talib's best game, no question about it. But I don't think a team makes a long-term decision based on one game. The best approach is to look at the complete body of work. Also, I think Steve Smith deserves some respect as well. He's a good player who got the best of Talib.
Q. Hi Mike, did the Patriots go after Ed Reed when he was released? if not, why? Don't you think having a veteran defensive player like him could have an impact in the playoff run? Just like the old Rodney Harrison days. -- Albert (Boston)
A. Albert, I thought Reed could have helped the Patriots but the team didn't make an aggressive push for him. Jason LaCanfora of CBS reported that Tom Brady texted Reed urging him to sign with the team. But as LaCanfora noted, the Patriots didn't pursue Reed with vigor. We know Reed isn't the player he once was (he wasn't a difference-maker in his Jets debut) and maybe the Patriots had questions about if he was the best fit for a complementary role at this point in the season. We'll see how it turns out. More often than not, the Patriots are usually correct on these types of decisions from this view.
Q. Mike, I think letting Ed Reed pass by was a mistake. I think he could have been a great situational player that puts us back in the Super Bowl conversation. As of now, I think we have real potential for a playoff one-and-done. Thoughts? -- Chris (Sacramento)
A. Chris, I think it's too early to be locking in "one-and-done" or "deep playoff team" because, as we've seen in recent years, so much of this is about the health of the team coming down the stretch and if a club can get hot when it counts. As for Reed, I've wondered if the Patriots might regret passing on him. We'll see how it turns out.
Q. I can't see a reason to think the Patriots should have signed Ed Reed. He's clearly dropped off from his previous level of play. Your thoughts? -- Jack (Wilmington, Del.)
A. Jack, I liked the idea from a complementary-role perspective. Part of my thinking was that two of the Patriots' final six regular-season games came against Reed's former teams (Texans on Dec. 1 and Ravens on Dec. 22) and he'd provide a veteran playmaking presence in nickel and/or dime packages. I was assuming Reed would be on board with that and just didn't see much downside to the possibility.
Q. Mike, why is Leon Washington still on the roster? He never plays. He was brought to the Pats to return kicks, and we see how that's gone. Wouldn't it be better to use his roster spot on someone who can actually play? Thanks. -- Scot (White Plains, N.Y.)
A. Scot, it might ultimately come to that if Washington can't get back to full health from his recent ankle injury. Finances could be part of it, as he has a fully guaranteed contract after being re-signed before the first game of the season. But I think more than that is the idea that Washington, when healthy, brings some value as a veteran kickoff returner who has played in some big games. There are big games ahead and I think that, plus the financial considerations, is the main factor keeping him on the roster.
Q. Mike, we've heard many times about how 15 days is a lot of time to prepare for one team. I know BB's mantra is one game at a time, but with an even bigger matchup with Denver coming up, does BB allocate anyone from his staff to begin preparations for the next game? -- Anand D. (San Francisco)
A. Anand, those preparations are really fluid over the course of the entire season, mixing members of both the scouting and coaching staffs. Belichick, while stressing the importance of a singular focus on the current week's game, obviously takes a look ahead at times himself. As Jon Gruden said Monday, when you have a 15-day break, there is an element of balancing the current week with the next week from a coaching perspective.
Q. As thin as the Patriots are at the DT position, are you surprised that Ron Brace's name has not been mentioned as a possible replacement? -- Pat (Kennett Square, Penn.)
A. Pat, I think what it comes down to is if Brace is better than what is already on the roster -- rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, first-year player Marcus Forston and 10-year veteran Isaac Sopoaga -- and I don't think he is. Then you also have A.J. Francis and Sealver Siliga on the practice squad, so it's not like they are hurting numbers-wise. It's just obviously a hit on the quality when a team loses defensive tackles the caliber of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
Q. Why are you and other reporters harping on these rookie receivers? They are young and talented and prone to making mistakes, but they will learn this system better than any free agent the Patriots have ever picked up other than Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Remember, in the early 2000s, Brady did not know the system as well as he does now, and that's why his playbook under Charlie Weis was limited. Now he's one of the best quarterbacks in the game. -- Shawn D. (Boston)
A. Shawn, receiver is a tough position for a rookie to come in and make an immediate impact. A big part of that is the difference in complexity between the college and pro passing games, and we see that with rookie receivers on most every team. More was asked of the Patriots' rookie receivers this season than any other time in Belichick's 14 years as head coach, and we saw some volatile ups and downs. But clearly there is potential. The key now, as we've seen it, is that less is being asked of them other than Aaron Dobson (who from this view has the greatest upside). That's probably best for the team in the short-term and the rookies in the long run.
Q. Hey Mike, I'm disappointed that the Patriots and Robert Kraft didn't address Rob Gronkowski's remarks before Friday of last week. Just insert "collard greens" or "bagels" or something along those lines instead, and there would have been immediate outrage. I'd like to believe Kraft and this team have more respect for their fellow man. -- Sam33 (Roslindale, Mass.)
A. Sam, as you mentioned, Gronkowski did apologize at the end of last week. We also learned more context from the situation that the person involved was a friend of Gronkowski's and wasn't offended, in part because he was somewhat urging Gronkowski along those lines. Here's what I think it came down to: I don't think Gronkowski realized that what he said was wrong and hurtful, and if the team believed he did, I think we would have seen some more decisive action. This doesn't excuse the actions; just adds some more context.
Q. Mike I am so tired of Gronk's selfish distractions. He understands the media is going to take anything he says and try to sell it as controversial, yet here we are again with him. This is his fourth season now, and he obviously knows better. We have heard whispers of the team trying to settle him down but it's starting to look line he simply doesn't care. He gets away with it because of his on-field performance, and it's just not right. This has to be a factor when it comes decision time for New England in 2015. Your thoughts? -- Mike C. (Lowell)
A. Mike, so much can happen between now and when that decision about picking up his option has to be made. I don't think that is really on the radar right now. But I do think it's fair to talk about Gronkowski's professionalism, or lack of it at times, and how that creates media-based issues for the team at times. I'm not sure Gronkowski cares, as sometimes the perception is that he's more interested in marketing and promotional opportunities. I can understand why that would turn some people off.
Q. Mike, do coaches exchange game plan information? Would pals BB and Andy Reid, for instance, share game plan details for the Broncos? -- Hub (Mattapoisett, Mass.)
A. Hub, I'd say that's more the exception than the rule, especially within the conference. Sometimes it depends on the dynamics of the situation -- maybe Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would do something along those lines with Jets head coach Rex Ryan, his brother. But that's more of a unique situation.
Q. Hey Mike, just wanted to hear how you felt about how good the Patriots have been in the second half of each season the past six seasons and if you think this year will be similar. Since 2008 (I'll leave out 2007, as there was no difference from the start of the year in terms of their record), the Patriots are 33-7 after the halfway mark, and an astonishing 27-1 since 2010. Going into this season, I saw similar storylines to 2010, and a similar start to the year. They won some ugly games earlier on, and in the second half, the offense and defense came together to go on a huge run to finish 8-0 (right after the Cleveland/Peyton Hillis beatdown). Belichick is almost unanimously considered the best coach in the NFL for anyone who doesn't drink Patriots haterade. I'm confident that this team comes out of the gate in the second half and finishes no worse than 12-4. -- Chris (York, Maine)
A. Chris, I do think this will be a strong second half for the Patriots, assuming good health. When I watch games around the NFL, I see no reason the Patriots won't be in the mix when it counts. This is a good team.