A Panthers team that had been one of the worst in the NFL in turnover differential (and the worst in giveaways) forced three Patriots turnovers without giving one back Sunday. Carolina also averaged 5.3 yards per rush and shut down Patriots star receiver Randy Moss.
Yet the Panthers lost, by 10, at New England. The main culprits, besides a stout New England running game: Nine Carolina penalties, including several at crucial times, and a couple key plays. Here is an inside look at the swing penalties and plays that cost the Panthers the game, and a chance to inch back into the NFC playoff race:
Situation: Second-and-10 Panthers, ball on Carolina 21. 7-0 Panthers lead. 14:47 to play in second quarter.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, a fullback right, a receiver wide left, a receiver in the right slot and a tight end wide right. New England used three linemen with two linebackers in the box, a defender showing blitz over left tackle and two corners in press coverage.
What happened: Tailback Jonathan Stewart ran up the middle for a loss of 1 yard. Receiver Steve Smith was called for holding and the Patriots accepted the penalty.
How it happened: The tight end, Jeff King, went in motion left and set in the right slot. Stewart took the handoff and had little running room, never making it back to the line of scrimmage. Smith was locked up on corner Leigh Bodden on the edge, away from the ball. He grabbed, held and tackled Bodden.
The result: The Panthers faced a second-and-20, a lot for their conservative offense to overcome. Two plays later they punted.
Situation: Third-and-3 Panthers, New England 35. 7-0 Panthers. 3:39 to play in second.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, a fullback left, two receivers in the right slot and a tight end left. New England used three linemen with two linebackers in the box, two linebackers showing blitz off the edge and two corners a few yards off the receivers.
What happened: Quarterback Matt Moore threw incomplete for the fullback, Brad Hoover.
How it happened: Smith, lined up in the slot, went in motion left and set in the left slot. A corner followed him. Moore faked a handoff to tailback DeAngelo Williams, who picked up a blitz from linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. But Banta-Cain got close to Moore, who threw low and behind Hoover in the left flat.
The result: Faced with a fourth-and-3 on the fringe of kicker John Kasay's range on a cold, wet day; Panthers coach John Fox could have attempted a 53-yard field goal, tried to pin New England on a punt or gone for the first down. The Panthers still had the lead. The Patriots offense had little life.
Fox called for the field goal, Kasay missed short and the Patriots took over at the Panthers 43. New England promptly scored the tying touchdown before halftime, in part because of the following play...
Situation: Second-and-4 Patriots, New England 48, 7-0 Panthers, 2:50 to play in second.
Formations: New England lined up with four receivers and one back. Carolina used four linemen, four defenders in press coverage on the receivers and one linebacker in the box.
What happened: Quarterback Tom Brady threw deep, incomplete for tight end Ben Watson. But Panthers linebacker James Anderson was called for pass interference, moving the Patriots 30 yards downfield.
How it happened: Watson lined up wide right and ran a streak down the right sideline. Anderson single-covered Watson and was in stride with him when the ball arrived. Both players dove and the ball fell incomplete. Television replays did not show if Anderson had interfered, but Fox's analysts did not agree with the call.
The result: New England had a first down at the Carolina 21. The Patriots scored on a Kevin Falk run five plays later.
Situation: Third-and-7 Panthers, New England 45, 7-7 tie, 10:08 to play in third quarter.
Formations: Carolina lined up with four receivers and one back. New England used four linemen with two linebackers in the box and five defensive backs off in zone coverage.
What happened: Moore connected with Smith for a 15-yard gain, but the Panthers were called for a 5-yard illegal shift penalty that negated the pass.
How it happened: Smith started wide right and went in motion towards the right slot. He settled behind the slot receiver but did not set before the snap.
The result: Instead of a first down at the 30 -- within Kasay's range -- the Panthers faced a third-and-12 at midfield. Following another illegal shift penalty and a third third-down play, the Panthers punted from the Patriots 42.
Situation: Second-and-1 New England, Carolina 36, 14-10 Patriots, 8:38 to play in fourth.
Formations: New England lined up with one back, and one receiver and one tight end on each side. Carolina used four linemen with three linebackers in the box and a corner in press coverage on receiver Wes Welker in the right slot.
What happened: Tailback Laurence Maroney ran right for 2 yards and a first down. The Panthers were also penalized 5 yards for illegal use of hands.
How it happened: Defensive tackle Nick Hayden got his hand in the face of a Patriots offensive lineman, drawing the penalty.
The result: New England had a first down at the Panthers 29, within field goal range. Four plays later the Patriots kicked a field goal to go ahead by 7.
Situation: Fourth-and-13 New England, Carolina 45, 17-10 Patriots, 4:30 to play in fourth.
Formations: Both teams lined up expecting a punt.
What happened: The Patriots punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback, but the Panthers were called for roughing the punter.
How it happened: Panthers defensive end Everette Brown rushed up the middle and attempted to block the punt. Brown missed the ball and rolled over the left leg of Patriots punter Chris Hanson.
The result: Instead of having the ball 80 yards away from the tying score, the Panthers had to send their defense back onto the field. To compound matters, New England was now in field goal range. Four plays later the Patriots kicked a field goal to go up by 10, with less than 4 minutes to play.