At Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on Monday night, the stage was set for another classic Tom Brady comeback.
With his New England Patriots trailing the Carolina Panthers 24-20 with just three seconds left in regulation, Brady had his team positioned at the Panthers’ 15-yard line. During his spectacular career, Brady has led his team to 28 fourth-quarter comebacks. He was certainly poised to deliver No. 29.
Brady set up in the shotgun formation and dropped back to pass. Seeing tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, Brady let the ball fly. However, Gronkowski was held on the play by linebacker Luke Kuechly, who held on to the talented receiver for dear life while safety Robert Lester intercepted the pass in the end zone, ending the Patriots’ chance for a win.
A flag was thrown on the play, but after officials met to confer, the flag was quickly picked, and the Panthers had themselves a controversial 24-20 victory.
Brady, seething after the play, immediately confronted officials, but he was left to ponder why the flag was picked up on the play.
Following the game, referee Clete Blakeman explained the ruling on the field.
"There were two officials that came in," Blakeman said via a pool report transcript distributed to the media. "One was the umpire and the other one was our side judge 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."
However, the video clearly showed that Gronkowski was being held on the play before the ball was intercepted. Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for FOX Sports, clearly believes there was indeed a penalty on the play.
The NFL does not review penalties under current video review rules, so the play stands and the Patriots are forced to regroup and get ready to bounce back against the Denver Broncos next Sunday.
Head coach Bill Belichick, never one to be overly vocal in postgame press conferences, was tight-lipped when asked about the call.
“There was no explanation given to me. Officials ran off the field. I didn't see anything," Belichick said. "It was the last play of the game. There was a flag thrown and then the game was over."
Brady was much more politically correct in his opinion, preferring to take the blame for the play.
"He was kind of weaving in and out of there. I didn't really want to throw it over his head and out of bounds, so I was a little indecisive," Brady said. "It wasn't a great throw. No excuses. Should have been a better throw."
Brady is right, it could have been a better throw. But it was clear to just about everyone that Gronkowski was manhandled by Kuechly on the play. The officials’ assertion that the ball was uncatchable was rendered moot, because Gronkowski wasn’t even given a chance to try and make the catch.
Blown calls are going to happen in football, especially when human error is factored into the equation. But in this case, it affected the outcome of a game, and the excuse given after the game just doesn’t wash.
The Panthers can certainly celebrate a great win, and quarterback Cam Newton showed how special he can be when given the chance. It was his 25-yard scoring strike to Ted Ginn Jr. that gave the Panthers a 24-20 lead with just 59 seconds left.
But for the Patriots, it’s a loss that will gnaw at them and their fans for some time.