Figuring it had been four years and the statute of limitations had run out, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly finally came clean.
Yes, Rob Gronkowski, Kuechly did in fact interfere with you.
“A couple years later I can admit that I might have gotten away with one there,” Kuechly said Thursday, smiling in front of a group of reporters.
A pass interference flag on Kuechly against the Patriots tight end in the end zone was thrown, then picked up after the final play the last time these teams met, in 2013.
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Instead of the Patriots getting the ball on the 1 for a final play, the no-call meant Panthers safety Robert Lester’s interception stood as the game-sealing play in Carolina’s 24-20 victory at a packed and raucous Bank of America Stadium in a Monday night game in Week 11.
A livid Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tracked down referee Clete Blakeman, who’d picked the flag up, and berated him in an expletive-laced rant on their way into the tunnel.
Just as Kuechly tried to set the record straight this week, so too did Brady when he talked with Boston reporters about his exchange with Blakeman (who had ruled the ball was uncatchable).
“I wasn’t very positive. I don’t think I said very nice things to him, so I’d like to apologize to him,” Brady said. “But yeah, that was a little unfortunate. I wish we had gotten that call. That would’ve been a good call. That would have been a fun next play, I’ll tell you that. With one play left in the game, but oh well.”
The controversy surrounding the final play overshadowed a terrific, back-and-forth game between two playoff-bound teams. The Panthers took the lead for good on Ted Ginn Jr.’s 25-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton with 59 seconds left, then withstood Brady’s last-minute charge.
Fuel for a Super Bowl
The victory came during an eight-game winning streak that helped the Panthers overcome a 1-3 start in Ron Rivera’s third season as coach. But beating the Patriots in the final minute of a nationally televised game was a turning point for the Panthers, helping fuel a stretch of three consecutive playoff berths that was capped off by a Super Bowl appearance in 2015.
“Just the fact that we were able to come back and score a touchdown, come out on the winning end on that last two-minute drive. I think that’s what the significant was, especially against a team like them,” Rivera said this week.
“At that point, we hadn’t had a lot of luck winning games in the last minute. I think that was one of the games that we could point to as the watershed for us, being able to get past that. I think that was one of those defining moments for us as a football team.”
Newton had a near-perfect night against the Patriots, completing 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns and also running seven times for a game-high 62 yards.
Everyone involved in the ’13 game remembers it being an electric atmosphere.
“We were up, we were down. We fought back. We had some big stops. I think Cam had some really big drives,” Kuechly said. “And when you can kind of get the whole thing rolling – offense, defense, special teams – against a good team like that, it makes you feel good.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, never much for hyperbole, called it a really competitive game in a great environment.
“It was a great stadium, great crowd that night. It came down to a controversial play on the last play of the game in the end zone,” Belichick said. “We had a flag and then we didn’t have the flag, and the game was over. But two very competitive teams going toe-to-toe. It was a great football game.”
As for Gronkowski, whom Kuechly put in a bear hug on that November night four years ago, the Patriots’ tight end didn’t feel like reliving the final play much this week.
“There was a little confrontation about that call at the end, but it is what it is,” Gronkowski said during a conference call. “It was what it was.”
And what it was – at least in Kuechly’s view – was a break the Panthers were more than willing to accept.
“It’s too late now,” Kuechly said Thursday. “A couple years removed, hopefully there’s no hard feelings in Boston.”