Debate calls, but not Panthers' play

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You can debate all day whether the officials made the correct decision to pick up the flag on the final play of the Carolina Panthers' 24-20 victory Monday over the New England Patriots.

You can't debate that it's a win for Carolina. Six straight, to be more precise. And it shouldn't taint anything.

If you believe the no-call on linebacker Luke Kuechly interfering with tight end Rob Gronkowski taints the outcome, then you probably believe the no-call on Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon leg-whipping defensive end Charles Johnson would have tainted a New England victory.

Had a penalty been called there, a 12-yard run by LeGarrette Blount would have been negated and a 15-yard penalty implemented. Instead of first down at their own 43 yard line, the Patriots would have had first-and-25 at the 16.

Quarterback Tom Brady's 9-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski eight plays later that tied the score 10-all may have never happened, and the final play dramatics may not have been an issue.

Sure, the final no-call makes for great debate. But this game wasn't won or lost on one no call.

And it doesn't change the fact that the Panthers (7-3) are playing at a level good enough to beat teams of New England's caliber. They defeated the San Francisco 49ers the previous week on the road with no controversy.

"You go with what is called and how it's called," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday. "It's good for us to get the call like that. Believe me, I'm biased. I think you feel very fortunate. It's tough. What those men, the referees, have to do out there is tough. It's a game played by humans and refereed by humans. There are human errors and decisions and we live by them.”

What has been lost in all this is that Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott basically predicted what the Patriots were going to do on the final play, second-and-3 from the Carolina 18 with three seconds left.

They remembered the Patriots were in a similar situation in the final seconds of an Oct. 13 game against the New Orleans Saints. In that one, Brady found Kenbrell Thompkins for a 17-yard touchdown with five seconds left in a 30-27 victory.

The Panthers had the outside covered but were more focused on the middle of the field, where they anticipated Brady would go to Gronkowski.

They had rookie strong safety Robert Lester, who made the interception to end the game, in the middle of the end zone where it would have been nearly impossible for a pass to get through. They had free safety Mike Mitchell positioned to handle anything on the outside and pinch the play inside.

They had Kuechly in the face of Gronkowski.

"So all we had to do was get in position to cut him off like we did," Rivera said. "Robert was right where he was supposed to be."

Without admitting there was interference, McDermott said the only thing he would change about the way Gronkowski was covered was better technique by Kuechly.

Also lost in all of this is how many times the Panthers have lost games when the calls went the other way. In Week 2, Kuechly was called for a controversial interference against Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson to negate a game-winning interception with 14 seconds left.

Two plays later, Johnson caught a 2-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left to give the Bills a 24-23 victory.

The Panthers lost a game against Tampa Bay last season that involved a controversial penalty.

Those games and others rushed through Rivera's mind as officials gathered before picking up the flag on the final play.

"As far as I'm concerned that was the decision, the decision we live with," Rivera said. "No matter how much people want to talk about it and rehash, rehash, it's not going to change."

So while analysts and fans debate the no-call, Rivera is moving on to the next challenge -- a road game at 5-5 Miami. He's not apologizing for anything, although he admits if he were on the other end of the decision he would have been displeased.

"For 59 minutes and 57 seconds, we did exactly what we hoped to do," Rivera said. "We're going to move on from that, because after we get done with this we're talking about the next important game and that's Miami."

There's no debating that, either.