CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was long after Tom Brady had screamed at the referees about reversing a pass interference call on the final play of the game, and long after Bill Belichick had mumbled off his passive-aggressive displeasure ("you saw what I saw").
Everyone was looking for answers on Monday night, and so Rob Gronkowski stood at his locker and kept shrugging, while down the hall Luke Kuechly stood in front of his and just smiled.
It was Gronkowski and Kuechly who wound up in the back of the end zone, clock reading all zeros, Tom Brady's would-be game-winning pass zipping through the air toward them. Kuechly, Carolina's great linebacker, hugged his arms around Gronkowski, New England's great tight end.
The ball went short and wound up in the arms of safety Robert Lester, but the jubilation was short-lived as back judge Terrence Miles dropped a yellow flag down. Pass interference was the call, leaving New England with one more play, at the Carolina 1-yard line for all the marbles.
It seemed pretty simple. It wasn't.
The referees huddled up and decided to overrule the decision of Miles, who had a perfect view. The flag was picked up. There was no immediate explanation. Just no penalty which led to a lot of shouting, shrugs and smiles as the refs ran for cover.
Brady quickly chased down lead official Clete Blakeman and declared, "that was [expletive] horrible, Clete." Blakeman kept heading up the ramp.
"It was waved off," Gronkowski said. "I can't do anything about it."
"They picked up the flag," Kuechly said with a smile. "So apparently I did all right."
Apparently. Or not. This was the NFL's latest officiating controversy.
The refs decided that there could be no penalty due to "in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location," Blakeman told pool reporters afterward. "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 immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone."
If you're confused, you aren't alone.
A number of NFL rules experts took to social media to declare that whole thing was an inaccurate mess. It starts with the fact that under Article 6 (a) of Rule 12 (Section 1) of the NFL rule book, Kuechly's bear hug of Gronkowski qualified as defensive holding, not pass interference. As such, the catchability of the pass is not a factor in the infraction being called.
[Photos: Best NFL action from Week 11]
So the original flag was wrong. The reversal may have been correct (if the ball was, indeed, uncatchable) but only because the penalty being reversed was incorrect to begin with. If they’d gotten the first one right, they may have still blown the second one.
This is the NFL, no matter how many articles the book has, in the end it seems like it all comes down to your definition of "essence." Or something like that.
How confident is Blakeman that they got the call right?
"Yeah, in review, yeah, I think so," he said. "… You never like to end the game with some controversy like that on a call, but I'm pleased that our officiating crew got together and communicated and discussed it and ultimately, I believe we got it right."
Regardless, the decision wiped out two NFL fallacies. First, that a marquee team such as New England gets all the calls – it sure didn't get this one. And second, the Carolina Panthers aren't capable of gutting out close games against the league's elite teams.
Whether the flag should have been picked up or not, it was Carolina which put New England in position where it needed a defensive holding call to bail it out to get one more desperate shot at victory. Brady's pass, which came under pressure, sure wasn't a good one.
And it was the Panthers who had put together the 83-yard, 5:33 game-winning touchdown drive to seize this game. And it was the now 7-3 upstarts, riding a six-game win streak, that stepped onto the big stage of national television and gave the Pats everything they could handle for 60 minutes, one of the best played and spirited games of the season.
"If you saw a Carolina Panthers team in the past, this team isn't it," safety Mike Mitchell said. "It's our time. That's what we believe. We put it in so much hard work this offseason, coming together as a team, we deserved this. New England has been the big dog on the block for so long, but we just believed in each other. It's our time to make a statement and we did that tonight."
There's little doubt the Panthers believe in their quarterback, who calmly engineered multiple long, clock-churning drives, shook off mistakes and wowed everyone with video game scrambles.
Cam Newton (19 of 28 for 209 and three TDs) is still growing, but the trend lines are strong. He's come a long way from past seasons sitting on the bench with a towel of frustration hung over his head.
He's confident in himself. And his teammates are confident in his ability to lead them. That was evident when the confident one was told of their confidence.
"I hope," Newton said. "Jesus."
Then he immediately broke back toward humility.
"But it's not about me. People want to make it about myself and the plays I made. It's not a one-man show, by far."
The case can be made for Carolina as the second best team in the NFC – behind Seattle. With a physical, opportunistic defense and an improving offense led by a superior talent such Newton, anything is possible. They own consecutive victories now over San Francisco and New England.
If nothing else, this is a team that can create its own good fortune. It owes no one an apology about this victory.
As for those Patriots, they get a visit from Denver next week and are likely wondering what might have been if the original call stood. Still, with a two-game lead in the AFC East, this isn't likely to be crushing.
The company line in the locker room was to shut up and move on, but the anger and frustration was clear.
"There was no explanation given to me," Belichick said when asked if he'd received one. "The officials ran off the field. The last time I started asking an official about a call [vs. Baltimore in 2012], that was the wrong thing to do so [he was fined $50,000], so I have no idea.
"Like I said, we've been down that road before. Didn't get one tonight. Didn't get one at the Baltimore game. I guess that's the way we do it."
All that left was Gronkowski to try to say nothing that would get him fined by the league or in trouble with his own coach even though he clearly thought he was held.
First he claimed ignorance.
"I don't even know what the call at the end of the game was," he said, although replays show he knew exactly that the call was pass interference.
"I think they threw a flag and then they ended up waving it off," he deadpanned.
When it was "explained" to him, he just kept shrugging.
"If you saw [a penalty on the play] I would say, ‘Yeah,'" he said. "… I mean, there was a flag, but it got called back. I don't even know why they threw it."
Perhaps no one does. And down the hall, in an upbeat Carolina locker room, no one on the new look, white-hot, win-big Panthers really cared either. Nor should they. Suddenly frustrations and regrets and explanations are someone else's problem.