CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the locker room afterward, a few Patriots managed to chuckle at what one described as ''the ridiculousness of it all."
Bill Belichick shared nary a smile.
While what happened to his football team yesterday was without question a comedy of errors, none of it was particularly funny to New England's coach.
The situation of said comedy was a road game before a raucous crowd against a Carolina squad bent on righting itself after a season-opening loss at home.
The 73,528 fans at
The loss snapped the Patriots' six-game win streak and dropped New England to 1-1, with another challenging road test on tap Sunday at Pittsburgh.
''We need to play better, that's all there is," Belichick said. ''This is not good enough. Not good enough today, and it won't be good enough against anybody else.
''It goes without saying that we didn't play a very good football game. I don't think we played well enough in any phase of the game."
That may indeed have been the case -- considering the substandard play on special teams and inconsistent defense -- but ragged offensive play and a host of penalties were noticeably key factors in the losing effort.
The Patriots struggled to move the ball on the ground (39 rushing yards), were shaky in the passing game (23 completions in 44 attempts), converted just four of 14 third-down situations, and were flagged 12 times for 86 yards (to Carolina's six for 45).
''We turned the ball over, they stopped us on third downs . . . penalties, negative plays," receiver Troy Brown said in describing how the Patriots were held to their lowest point total since they beat the Jets, 13-7, last Oct. 24, a span of 15 games. ''It definitely kills you.
''Just a bad football game by the offense today. Very far, very far from what we want to do. It's hard to beat anybody if we play like this."
Patriots defenders, who held Carolina to just 146 net passing yards (250 total net yards), wouldn't allow the offense to take all the blame for defeat in this rematch of the teams that met in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
''We had silly penalties to help 'em get into field goal range," defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''We want to be a smart football team and it just didn't happen for us today."
Despite the unhealthy mixture of blunders, bungles, and boo-boos, the Patriots did not jump the shark in this comedic episode until tight end Benjamin Watson turned the ball over on a fumble in Carolina territory with a little more than two minutes remaining.
Trailing by 10 points, a score there would at least have given them hope at making a last-minute comeback.
''I have to hold onto the football," Watson said. ''I caught the ball and gave it up. That's not what we're coached to do."
The Patriots pride themselves on playing mistake-free football, but they were far from that goal yesterday.
Six of their penalties were for false starts, as crowd noise hurt the Patriots' rhythm. Not only did the line struggle to start on cue, it had difficulty opening holes. Running back Corey Dillon was held to just 36 rushing yards (on 14 attempts), his lowest total as a Patriot. The worst day yardage-wise for him last season came when he had 73 against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.
With Brady misfiring at different times high, low, long, and short, and his targets dropping a half-dozen passes, the Patriots never seemed to push the Panthers' defense. One of New England's touchdowns was set up by a 71-yard Brown sprint down the right sideline, courtesy of a blown coverage by the Panthers. The other was a defensive tally, on Mike Vrabel's 24-yard interception return.
''It seemed like there were too many times today where we just couldn't execute," quarterback Tom Brady said. ''We had too many long-yardage situations. Seemed like every third down was long yardage. We had too many penalties.
''Any time you do that against a tough team on the road it's too tough to overcome. And it was too tough to overcome today."
The Patriots scored first, on the play following Brown's dash to the 1-yard line. Brady hit an uncovered Daniel Graham for the touchdown with 3:40 left in the first period.
Carolina (1-1) scored the next 20 points on a pair of 1-yard Stephen Davis runs and two John Kasay 50-plus-yard field goals.
Davis's first score wasn't exactly a touchdown, as he stretched for the goal line and came up about a foot short. The ball squirted loose, igniting a mad scramble that was rendered moot when the officials signaled touchdown.
Belichick said there wasn't enough evidence to challenge the call, though television replays showed the ball should have been down inside the 1.
After Vrabel's return off an inexplicably poor throw by Jake Delhomme pulled the Patriots within 20-17 in the middle of the third period, victory was still available to New England in spite of the poor play.
But later in the period, Mike Rucker flashed past tackle Matt Light, slipped a block attempt by Logan Mankins, and got a piece of Brady's arm as he prepared to fire. The ball came out sideways, was scooped up by Julius Peppers, and returned to the Patriots' 12.
Four plays later, Davis (25 carries for 77 yards) rambled in from a yard out to give Carolina its final margin. It was the second touchdown drive of less than 15 yards for the Panthers.
''Regardless if they get the ball on the 10, 12, or goal line, we got to stop 'em from scoring or hold 'em to a field goal and we didn't do that," safety Rodney Harrison said. ''I believe that we could have played better in those situations."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at email@example.com