Super Bowl week for New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty started with someone reminding him of a regular-season game that was not so super.
McCourty rolled his eyes and chuckled when a reporter asked about the Patriots’ Week 4 game against the Carolina Panthers.
“We lost. That’s what I remember,” McCourty said Monday during the Opening Night event. “They gave us a lot of trouble that day.”
Here’s what trouble looked like for the Patriots in October in Foxborough, Mass.: Poor communication led to blown assignments, resulting in Panthers’ players running wild and free over vast expanses of the artificial turf at Gillette Stadium.
The Panthers racked up 444 yards and 28 first downs in the 33-30 victory, with Graham Gano booting the game-winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired after Tom Brady had rallied the Patriots with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
The loss left New England at 2-2 and prompted at least a few questions as to whether these Patriots – particularly on the defensive side – were Roman-numeral material like many of their forebearers.
Four months later, New England is preparing for Super Bowl LII against Philadelphia after winning 11 of its final 12 regular-season games. The Patriots didn’t lose at home again after the Panthers game, a streak that included playoff victories against the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
While New England players didn’t necessarily view the Carolina loss as a turning point in their season, they say it definitely served as something of a wake-up call.
“The sense of urgency definitely went up after that game,” running back Dion Lewis said.
Cracks were evident
The Patriots’ defense had shown major cracks before the Panthers arrived in Week 4. New England had given up 537 yards in a 42-27, opening-week loss at home to Kansas City.
The Patriots surrendered more than 400 yards in victories over the Saints and Houston the following two weeks as they struggled to find consistency in the secondary, in particular. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who signed a five-year, $65 million contract during the offseason, was still adjusting to the Patriots’ scheme over the first month of the season.
Much like the Chiefs did against New England, Carolina threw a bunch of shifts, motions and bunch formations at the Patriots, who had several communication breakdowns.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had five passes of at least 24 yards, including two to Kelvin Benjamin.
Interim general manager Marty Hurney traded Benjamin to Buffalo a month later, citing the need to open the field for Devin Funchess and the other receivers. But that wasn’t an issue against the Patriots.
New England cornerback Malcolm Butler didn’t give the Panthers much credit after the game when he said: “We lost the game ourselves. It was nothing Carolina was doing.”
Butler also pointed to the Patriots’ penalties as a big culprit.
Gilmore was whistled for two illegal-use-of-hands flags, including a costly one that allowed the Panthers to convert a third-and-7 on their game-winning drive.
“It’ll take time,” Gilmore said following the game. “We know what we got to do. Like I said, we just got to do it and it was our fault.”
‘They’re going to get it together’
In the Panthers’ interview room at Gillette Stadium, Rivera had essentially the same assessment when asked about the Patriots’ secondary.
“I wouldn’t say it was a weakness. It’s one of those things where eventually they’re going to get it together,” Rivera said. “Coach (Bill) Belichick is a solid defensive mind. He’s the best in the league and he’ll get it figured out.”
The improvement didn’t happen overnight.
The Patriots allowed 300-yard passing games to Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and the Jets’ Josh McCown in back-to-back victories after the loss to Carolina, but have not given up another since.
Gilmore, who had the rough day against the Panthers, found his groove. The Rock Hill native and former South Carolina standout made a game-saving play in the AFC Championship Game against Jacksonville, stretching out to knock down a fourth-down pass by Blake Bortles in the final two minutes.
McCourty, the veteran safety, said the Patriots didn’t make any scheme changes after falling to the Panthers. They just played better.
“It was simple. We weren’t playing good. Everyone talked it up and chalked it up. It was just communication. Overall we all needed to play better,” McCourty said.
“It wasn’t just blown assignments. We had plays where we knew what we were doing and we just didn’t make the play. I thought we just locked in and played better. We didn’t point fingers. We didn’t act like the world was ending. We just took our time and got better.”
That said, New England’s defense isn’t going to invoke memories of the Steel Curtain or the 1985 Bears.
The Patriots finished the regular season with the league’s 29th-ranked defense and were 30th against the pass.
But they’re in a much better place than they were four months ago against the Panthers, whom Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers called a great team.
And while Boston might have been in an uproar about the team’s slow start and tough loss to Carolina, Flowers said the Patriots didn’t panic.
“We understood it was early on in the year. And for us in the locker room, that’s kind of where we keep it. We’re not worried about the noise outside, what everybody’s saying,” Flowers said. “We knew we had the puzzle pieces for it, just had to put it together.”