The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots were supposed to be each other's measuring stick. Their Monday Night Football matchup was supposed to answer the lingering questions hanging around both Super Bowl contenders.
Could a Patriots offense with Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola put up points on the ferocious Panthers defense? Could that Panthers defense shut down Tom Brady and all his weapons? Could Cam Newton come through in a critical prime-time game against a quality opponent? Could the Patriots shut down an offense as balanced as Carolina's?
Instead, the game raised as many questions as it answered.
On paper, Newton had a superlative day, culminating in a clutch game-winning drive. On paper, the Panthers defense stood tall, holding a full-strength Patriots offense to just 20 points. On paper, Brady fell short, throwing a game-ending end-zone interception.
In reality, the Panthers defense let the Patriots cover most of the field in the final minute of the game, even allowing them to convert a 4th-and-10 to keep that drive alive. In reality, that game-ending interception stood because of an incredibly controversial no-call.
In reality, the Panthers very nearly blew this game.
They didn't, of course.
When the clock struck 00:00, the scoreboard read 24-20. That's how it'll go into the record books, asterisk-free and everything. The Panthers got the W, the Patriots got the L and both teams are now 7-3.
Just how big of a statement did the Panthers really make, though?
Let's take a look at that defense, which allowed a league-best average of 12.8 points per game before this MNF contest, per Pro Football Reference.
The Panthers allowed Brady to complete 29-of-40 passes (72.5 percent) for 296 yards, one touchdown and that one interception. If Luke Kuechly hadn't nearly tackled Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, Brady's stat line might have read 30-of-40 for 314, two touchdowns and no interceptions, the kind of line a dominant, Super Bowl-caliber defense doesn't often allow.
It's tempting to give the Panthers defense a pass. After all, it is Tom Brady we're talking about.
Yet, it's quarterbacks like Brady, and teams like the Patriots, the Panthers will face in every round of the playoffs. Unless the Panthers win out, sweeping the New Orleans Saints along the way, they'll have to win three games like this in a row to make the Super Bowl—and on the road, to boot.
Offensively, Newton was strong. He completed 19-of-28 passes (67.9 percent) for 209 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Besides averaging a healthy 7.5 yards per pass attempt, he also made things happen on the ground: He rolled for 62 yards on just seven carries.
The rest of the Panthers ground game was missing in action. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert split just 16 carries, and gained just 41 yards. The Patriots rushing defense, per Pro Football Reference, was allowing 4.3 yards per carry for most of 2013; it's a bad sign that the Panthers' power-run trio couldn't muster more than 2.6.
Newton will need that rushing game to take more pressure off him down the stretch, and in the postseason.
Finally, again, all the defense had to do was stop Brady on that final-minute 4th-and-10, or any of the other plays that Brady made as the Pats marched effortlessly down the field. If the officials hadn't picked up that flag, everything the defense had done—not to mention everything Newton had done—would have been rendered moot.
The Patriots are 7-3 now and were arguably jobbed in two of those losses. They've suffered heavy injuries throughout the season, after suffering heavy turnover throughout the offseason.
Are they still the dynastic Patriots we know?
Brady hasn't looked quite as flawless, or as ageless, this season as he has in recent years. A career spent with a never-ending carousel of receiving targets seems to be catching up with him; it's hard to argue he has a strong rapport with free-agent signee Amendola, let alone rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.
Yet, here was Brady, executing the offense well and completing pass after pass. Just as he did against the New Orleans Saints, Brady authored a breathtakingly fast final drive toward a touchdown; this time, he couldn't quite close the deal.
With the return of tailback Vereen, it was thought that maybe the Patriots could move the ball against the stingy Panthers defense. Vereen got only one carry for seven yards before losing a fumble, but it didn't matter.
Twenty-three runs by Patriots tailbacks LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley, combined with Vereen's lone carry, totaled 104 yards rushing. That's 4.3 average yards per carry against a defense that had been allowing just 3.8 per rush, per Pro Football Reference.
Then there was that tremendous final drive, where Brady, Gronkowski and Amendola turned the impossible—going 80 yards in 59 seconds against the best defense in football—into a result that looked almost inevitable.
Instead, though, Kuechly held Gronkowski, the refs held their flags and the scoreboard held firm.
Brady was left to curse at the refs as they walked down the tunnel, demanding an explanation.
If you're a fan of the Patriots, you've got to swallow a hard-to-swallow result.
To believe the Patriots have a legitimate chance at the Super Bowl, you've got to believe this loss—and the Jets loss—were isolated incidents, two separate highway robberies where the Patriots outplayed their opponent but had victory stolen from them.
You can't believe the nagging voice in your head that says the young Tom Brady wouldn't have left it for the refs to decide.
If you're a fan of the Panthers, you've got to believe that Monday Night Football was Newton's coming-out party, his big step forward as a mature, professional quarterback who wins big games by making big plays in big moments.
You've got to believe this Panthers defense is indeed the best in the NFL, ready to smother any team on the way to the Super Bowl—and that they made their biggest play of the game when it counted the most.
If you tuned in to Monday Night Football to find out which of these teams is better prepared to win in January, you went to bed without an answer.
If you just tuned into Monday Night Football because you wanted to see a great game, congratulations! You're the only one who walked away from this contest an indisputable winner.