The Patriots-Panthers game on Monday Night Football literally came down to a last-second play. With Carolina leading 24-20 and three seconds on the clock, New England quarterback Tom Brady tried to find tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone.
Two things prevented that: Brady's pass was underthrown -- and eventually intercepted by the Panthers' Robert Lester -- and Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly had Gronkowski in a bear hug in the back of the end zone well before the ball arrived.
The umpire, who saw the hold unfold just feet in front of him, threw a flag before calling other officials in to confer. After a brief discussion, the flag was picked up, referee Clete Blakeman announced “There is no foul on the play. The game is over,” and the officials ran off the field.
Meanwhile, Brady, who, like everyone else watching the game figured the Patriots would have one more play, chased down Blakeman for an explanation as both made their way to the locker room. Blakeman did not offer one.
After the game, coach Bill Belichick was asked if he "got a sense of what the facts were" on that final play. "No," he said. "There was no explanation given to me. ... The officials ran off the field and I didn't see anything."
Belichick, after a pause, added: "I've been through that before. The last time I tried to ask an official a question about a call that, you know, was the wrong thing to do so I have no idea."
He was referring to an incident from September 2012 when he touched an official following a loss to the Ravens. The NFL fined him $50,000.
When pressed by the media Belichick reiterated, "We've been down that road before. We didn't get [a call] tonight, we didn't get one in that Baltimore game. Guess that's the way we do it."
Later, Blakeman finally offered up details for the decision to pick up the flag.
"There were two officials that came in," referee Clete Blakeman said after the game, according to MassLive.com's Nick Underhill. "One was the umpire and the other one was our side judge and there was a discussion at that point as to the, in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location.
"So it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and, in essence, it was immediately at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone," Blakeman continued. "So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred."
When Gronkowski was asked if he felt like he was held on the play, he said, "I've got to re-watch, but if you saw that, then I would say 'Yeah," later adding: "It just wasn't completed and there was no flag. There was a flag, but it got called back. I don't even know why they threw it and there's just no excuse. I'm not trying to be here to make excuses, they're a good football team, they scored more points than us and they beat us straight up."
"It is how it is now, and they took the call back and can't do anything about it," Gronkowski said. "And that's not when the game is [won] and [lost]. They're a very good team, they played tough all four quarters."
It's a small solace after a tough defeat, but the Patriots are still 7-3 and have a two-game lead on the Jets and the Dolphins in the AFC East. They're still in firm control of their playoff destiny.