CHARLOTTE, NC — The Patriots rolled to their sixth straight victory on Sunday, beating the Carolina Panthers 38-6 and clinching their first AFC East divisional title since 1997.
With the win New England improved to 11-5 on the season, and thanks to the New York Jets who beat Oakland 24-22 on Sunday the Patriots will have a first round bye heading into the post season after the Raider loss gave them the #2 seed in the playoffs.
The Panthers meanwhile dropped their fifteenth straight game, which is now a new NFL record. The official paid attendance listed for the game was 71,907, but it appeared that about 50,000 of them opted to avoid the cold drizzly weather and watched the game from home. The majority of fans who did decide to show up at the game appeared to be dressed in red-white-and-blue.
For the Patriots fans who did make the trip to Carolina they were treated to a game that saw their team pick off rookie quarterback Chris Weinke twice for touchdowns, one by cornerback Ty Law for 46-yards, and also one by Otis Smith that was returned 76-yards. They also got to see wide receiver Troy Brown return a punt 68-yards for a New England score, and may have joined the rest of Patriot Nation trying to figure out exactly why he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl.
New England actually went in at half time only leading 10-3 after both a field goal by Adam Vinatieri and Law’s interception return. Vinatieri kicked the field goal after a touchdown run by Antowain Smith was called back following a holding penalty on guard Joe Andruzzi. They had another chance to score on their next possession, but Antowain Smith fumbled on a 4th and one play at the Carolina 1-yard line and the Panthers recovered, ending what was a sure score for New England as well as potentially stealing the momentum.
But in the second half New England exploded for 28-points, outscoring the Panthers 28-3 and ending their season in convincing fashion, and they will now have a week off to prepare for their first opponent who for now has yet to be determined.
The Patriots first points of the second half came on Brown’s punt return for a touchdown to increase New England’s lead to 17-3. The Panthers answered with a field goal to cut the lead to 17-6, but the Patriots came right back on their next possession, driving 63-yards on 6-plays highlighted by a 32-yard touchdown run by runningback Antowain Smith. New England lead 24-6 with 1:29 left in the 3rd quarter.
The Panthers appeared poised to answer after they picked Tom Brady off giving them good field position at the New England 40-yard line, but three plays later Carolina runningback Richard Huntley fumbled and New England defensive lineman Richard Seymour recovered and ended the threat.
After a punt on their next possession a turnover by the Panthers at their own 9-yard line set up another New England touchdown as quarterback Tom Brady found tight-end Jermaine Wiggins from 5-yards out for a touchdown, increasing New England’s lead to 31-6 with 10:38 left in the game.
The Patriots final points came with 5:59 left in the game when Chris Weinke was picked off by defensive back Otis Smith, and Smith returned the Carolina rookie quarterback’s pass 76-yards for a touchdown.
Quarterback Tom Brady finished the game 17-of-29 for 198-yards passing a touchdown and two interceptions, but the story of the game again was runningback Antowain Smith who rushed for 81-yards on 21 carries. Despite his first-half fumble Smith came out in the second half and ran hard, looking like a man on a mission after his turnover.
He finishes the regular season with 287-carries for 1157-yards rushing, and he becomes the first New England lead runningback to average 4-yards-per-carry in a season since Curtis Martin averaged 4.2 back in 1997.
With the #2 seed New England will not play next weekend, and they will have the luxury of being able to watch next week’s Wild-Card Weekend as they wait to see who their first opponent in the postseason will be.