FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — His arms finally free, Rob Gronkowski clapped when he saw the yellow flag in the end zone. The Patriots would have one more chance to win.
Seconds later, that chance was lost.
One day later, Bill Belichick wouldn’t discuss the officials’ decision to wave off a penalty on the final play when Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly wrapped his arms around Gronkowski as Tom Brady’s pass sailed toward them.
There was nothing New England’s coach could do about the 24-20 loss to the Panthers on Monday night. Better to focus on his second straight prime-time challenge coming up Sunday night against the Denver Broncos.
“I don’t really have any comment to add about the officiating or any of those calls,” Belichick said during a conference call Tuesday. “If you have any questions on that, you can talk to the league office and the officiating department. Let them give their explanation.”
Or you can listen to Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
“Both arms are being wrapped around the receiver as the ball’s in the air,” he said on WEEI radio. “A foul’s a foul. No matter what it is, the ball’s there. It’s not like the ball’s 20 feet over his head or it lands on the 5-yard line or something.”
With the ball at the Carolina 18 and a lineman bearing down on him, Brady didn’t step into the throw as he usually does. The underthrown pass was intercepted by Robert Lester about 4 yards into the end zone. Gronkowski, a few yards behind Lester, couldn’t move toward the ball with Kuechly bear-hugging him.
Referee Clete Blakeman conferred for a few seconds with back judge Terrence Miles, who threw the flag. Miles shook his head. Then Blakeman said there was no foul and the game was over. Later, Blakeman told two pool reporters that Miles had called defensive pass interference but the ball was uncatchable.
Gronkowski’s elation was gone. Brady’s anger was visible as he talked to Blakeman while leaving the field.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, said he “wouldn’t say” the officials were wrong for not penalizing the Panthers for pass interference.
“They determined that in their judgment the contact occurred simultaneous with the ball being intercepted and that’s why the officials did what they did,” Blandino said on NFL Network. “Once the ball is touched you cannot have pass interference.”
Even if the penalty stood, the ball would have been placed at the 1 and the Patriots still would have needed a touchdown.
“I don’t make the calls or the rules,” Brady said. “I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that. I think there were plenty of plays we could’ve made.”
The Patriots (7-3) will have to make a lot more of them against the Broncos (9-1), the NFL’s highest-scoring team, and Peyton Manning, who leads the league with 34 touchdown passes in 10 games.
“I think Peyton Manning just gets better every year,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “He just understands what the defense is, what coverage he’s getting, and puts the ball where he needs to put it.”
So with a short week of practice, Belichick didn’t want to waste time dwelling on the disputed play.
“It’s not really our job to call the game. It’s to play it and coach it. Whatever calls they make are the ones that we live with,” he said.
“We have to turn the page here quickly, get on to Denver. Good football team, playing well. Obviously, their record reflects that.”
The Broncos are averaging 39.8 points, 16 more than the Panthers and 14 more than the Patriots.
New England’s defense is battered with five starters missing Monday night’s game, three of them out for the season. And the Patriots have one fewer day than usual to prepare.
“It will be a challenging week, but every week in the NFL is challenging,” Belichick said. “We’ll just take the time and the opportunity that we have and try to make the most of it.”
Coming off a bye week, the Patriots had plenty of time to prepare for the Panthers (7-3). But their only lead, 20-17, came on Stephen Gostkowski’s 26-yard field goal with 6:32 left.
The Panthers went ahead with 59 seconds remaining on Cam Newton’s 25-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr.
Then Brady threw 11 passes to get the ball to the Carolina 18 with 3 seconds to go.
Enough time for one play — and one controversy.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday he would have been upset if his receiver had been held in that situation.
“No doubt about it,” he said, but “no matter how much people talk about it and rehash it, it’s not going to change.”
The Patriots know that.
“Any time you go on the road against a tough opponent, you’re going to have adversity. That call at the end of the game is a big call to make,” running back Stevan Ridley said. “We just have to move on.”