Just when you think the New England Patriots have finally found their stride on offense, something happens that restores doubt. The Patriots have played 10 games this season, winning low-scoring grinders and high-scoring shootouts. Through it all, the Patriots have failed to establish an offensive identity.
Do the Patriots want to strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators with a vertical passing game? Do they want to force defenses to respect the width of the field with a spread attack? Do they want to be balanced, or do they want to put the ball in the hands of their future Hall of Fame quarterback?
Any good offense wants to be able to do all of those things, for obvious reasons, but good teams have a bread-and-butter that they can call on when they're in a bind. The Patriots don't look like they have that right now.
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On paper, the Patriots offense had one of its best games of the season despite losing to the Carolina Panthers, 24-20. In reality, they played just about as well as you could possibly have played while still leaving at least six points on the field.
Anything the Patriots might hope to count on, they haven't been able to. Even the protection from the offensive line, which has been sound all season long, has been on the wrong end of too many key plays this year, including an early sack of Brady.
Before Monday night, third downs had been a nightmare for the Patriots offense. The Patriots went 5-of-10 on third down against a Panthers defense that had been one of the league's best at getting those stops.
Quarterback Tom Brady completed 72.5 percent of his throws on the night, the highest completion percentage for him in a single game since Week 5 of the 2012 season against the Denver Broncos.
Earlier this season, these are numbers the Patriots would have paid a premium for.
We've been used to the Patriots struggling in the third quarter of games, scoring just 3.2 points per game in the third quarter headed into Monday night, but this is the second time in the past three games they've scored three points in the first half, only to turn around with a surge in the third quarter. They scored 17 unanswered against the Miami Dolphins in Week 8, and they scored 14 points in the 17:27 game clock following halftime.
They had a chance to win, but they couldn't. It may not have even had to reach that point with better execution from start to finish.
"A lot of things came down to that very last play," said running back Stevan Ridley, "but if we played a little more solid football throughout the day, we wouldn't have been in that position."
A pair of missed opportunities will stand out when the Patriots look at the tape on Tuesday:
- A fumble by Ridley inside the red zone, with the Patriots marching down the field. The Panthers took the ball and advanced down the field for a field goal in what would prove to be no less than a six-point swing.
- A costly personal foul penalty by Logan Mankins on 1st-and-10 at the Panthers' 26-yard line that pushed the Patriots back to the 41 for a 2nd-and-25, where they would settle for a field goal after failing to convert.
Those are points that were left on the field.
There were some signs of growth from the offense; as mentioned, the improved performance on third down and Brady's improved efficiency had a lot to do with the Patriots even having a chance to win the game.
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They continue to get Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola more involved in the game plan, and Brady was 11-of-14 targeting those two players against the Panthers. Brady having his two best weapons over the middle back in the fold has been a huge boost to the Patriots offense.
Getting Shane Vereen back was also helpful; he caught eight passes for 65 yards and could have had another big one on a wheel route over linebacker Luke Kuechly, were his hand not wrapped in a few extra layers of tape.
The other parts that ail the Patriots offense will have to be figured out quickly.
With the Denver Broncos coming to town, and the playoffs coming up in less than two months, the Patriots don't have much longer to wait around before finding that identity.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.