Instant analysis: Patriots’ defense finally breaks

CHARLOTTE – The Patriots’ defense has been bending for the last few weeks. Monday night in Carolina, it finally broke.

That’s the only way to explain their 24-20 loss to the Panthers on national television. The offense did plenty to win the game, especially with Tom Brady completing 28-of-39 passes. But Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was Superman, and picked apart a Patriots defense that was stout for the first nine games but suddenly looks very vulnerable.

Carolina only had 300 total yards, but the Panthers were efficient and precise in carving up the Patriots’ defense. Newton finished 19-of-28 for 209 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he led a Panthers’ offense that didn’t turn the ball over, the first time the Patriots didn’t force one in 37 games.

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All season long the Patriots had kept mobile quarterbacks bottled up in the pocket – EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, Josh Freeman, Ben Roethlisberger – but they couldn’t contain Newton, who led the Panthers with seven rushes for 62 yards, including a spectacular 14-yard scramble in which he avoided three defenders and ran a total of 75 yards.

The Patriots have been able to get by this year despite injuries to linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and cornerback Aqib Talib, but perhaps losing safety Steve Gregory and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was too much for them to overcome on Monday. They entered the game with the league’s 12th-best pass defense, but looked slow and out of position all night as Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn scooted past them all night. Talib couldn’t handle Smith – both in coverage and in post-play scuffles – and Kyle Arrington, hobbled by a knee injury, let Ginn blow right past him for the game-winning touchdown.

The Panthers only had seven possessions, and scored on four of them. All four times the Panthers grinded the clock for over five minutes, including a touchdown drive that lasted 8:21 in the third quarter. Three of the drives covered 80-plus yards. The Panthers also kept the chains moving by converting 8-of-11 third downs.

The Patriots’ defense entered the game ranked No. 7 in points allowed and carried the team through the first nine games of the season. But as Monday night’s loss showed, Brady and the offense might have to return the favor over the final six games.