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November 20. 2013 12:55AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: : Against a good defense, New England moved the ball at will.

FOR the third time in as many road trips, the Patriots walked off the field feeling frustration, replaying their regrets and wondering what could've been.

For the third time, they lost a game when questionable officiating or awful weather interfered with their efforts to claim it from the clutches of defeat in the final minutes. First there was the sudden downpour that made passing the ball near-impossible during their final drive against the Bengals. Next came the pushing penalty that better positioned the Jets for an overtime field goal. Then, Monday night, there was the overturned pass interference penalty in the end zone that cost New England a one-play chance to beat the Panthers by scoring from the 1-yard line.

So, a case could be made, the Patriots are that close — three minutes and a grand total of 14 points — from a perfect record and residence in the AFC's penthouse.

But as a Hall of Fame coach once espoused, "You are what you are," and by their inability to take care of business before the rain or the rulebook intervened, the Pats instead stand at 7-3. That's good, sure, but it wouldn't be good enough for a first-round bye if the playoffs were seeded today, which could be a particularly dooming disadvantage considering they've lost all three road games they've played against .500-or-better opponents, and considering that in the fine-line NFL the good teams tend to make the plays necessary to win, while the others find ways to lose.

After coming close, but ultimately coming up empty, Monday night continued all debate about which category the Patriots fit into. Yet for all the frustration it created, for as confounding as the finish may have been, and for as precarious a position it puts the Pats' bye hopes with the mighty Broncos headed for Foxborough this weekend, it was actually an encouraging performance for anyone looking to see what New England's offense could do against a top-quality defense.

No, they didn't score anywhere near the 55 points they did against Pittsburgh prior to the bye week. And, no, they didn't even match the 24 points they scored in the second half against Miami the week before that. But neither the Steelers nor the Dolphins has a defense the caliber of the Panthers', which has allowed fewer points per game than any team in football, while ranking among the league's top five against both the run and the pass.

Carolina's defense is fast, physical and multi-faceted — though the Patriot attack had its way with the Panthers most of the night, as it marched up and down the field. New England gained at least two first downs on each of its seven drives, all of which included at least eight plays and ended in Carolina territory. Five of the final six reached the red zone, with the lone exception winding up at the 24-yard line in part because of a 15-yard personal foul on Logan Mankins.

That was one of several mistakes that cost the Patriots points, joining a first-quarter sack that pushed the Pats outside of field goal range, Stevan Ridley's fumble at the Panthers' 12, and failure to convert on third-and-1 from the 8. Those types of miscues and missed opportunities are often what decide an otherwise evenly played game, and are also what plagued the Patriots at Cincinnati and New York, but if New England can somehow figure out a way to seize instead of squander all the chances it creates for itself, it again appears to have the makings of a formidable offense.

That's easier said than done, of course, particularly since it's a problem that has plagued the Patriots since the opener, and they're now headed into Week 12. But offensively they've never been as healthy as they are now. And as the talent begins to match the attitude, continual improvement can be expected.

"We just need to do a better job with the opportunities that we have, and that's what we're going to keep working to do," coach Bill Belichick said during a Tuesday conference call, when he refrained from comment on the controversial non-call that ended the game, referring all questions on that to the league and instead focusing on his team. "Our effort, our competitiveness, our ability to hang in there — it was a back and forth game and, as I said, it came down to a handful of plays."

They probably deserved to run one more play, because Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly had his arms wrapped around Rob Gronkowski with a pass headed toward the Patriot tight end, but nevertheless they still ran for 107 yards; Carolina allows an average of 84.5. They still threw for 283; Carolina allows an average of 209.5. They still gained 390 yards from scrimmage; Carolina allows an average of 294.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Brady was 25-for-28 passing, and his 72.5 percent completion rate was appropriately a season-best, as he seemed as synched with his receivers as he has been this year. He targeted four different players at least seven times apiece, and six Patriots caught at least a couple of passes. Shane Vereen added a threat out of the backfield, Danny Amendola delivered a few times on third down, Aaron Dobson continued earning trust, and Gronkowski is basically back in familiar form — and if that all continues to come together, so might be the results of this unit.

"We can play better than that," Brady vowed after the game, frustrated and regretful that his team's fate was left to the referees, but seeming to understand that if they can eliminate — or at least limit — the mistakes, Monday's performance suggested the Patriots are getting closer to where they want to be.

Record-wise it's not quite there. And their big-moment failures might eventually force them to work on wild-card weekend. But the Panther defense is as legitimate as any the Patriots will face between now and the Super Bowl.

And if New England's offense continues to build, that just might be where these clubs see each other next.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is

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