Four days after coach Bill Belichick told four players to leave when they were tardy for a team meeting, the Patriots shook off a poor first half, went ahead with 1:06 left in the third quarter on Tom Brady's 5-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin Watson and beat the Panthers 20-10 on Sunday.
The Patriots (8-5) snapped a two-game losing streak and maintained their one-game lead in the AFC East. The Panthers (5-8) lost for the third time in four games.
New England has played much better in the first half this season, but that changed Sunday.
The Patriots lost two fumbles and an interception before Brady's pass to Watson broke a 7-7 tie and Stephen Gostkowski kicked field goals of 48 and 47 yards in the fourth quarter. They didn't score their first touchdown until 1:08 remained in the first half when Kevin Faulk ran in from 3 yards on a drive helped by a 30-yard defensive pass interference call.
The Panthers had taken a 7-0 lead on Matt Moore's 41-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith with 2:43 left in the first quarter. But all they could manage after that was John Kasay's 36-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Moore played for the second straight week in place of Jake Delhomme, who has a broken finger.
The victory capped an eventful week for the Patriots, starting with a 22-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins on a field goal with 1:07 left. After that game, Brady said his teammates sometimes don't seem to fight as hard as they should.
On Tuesday, Brady's wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, gave birth to their son. The new father was at work on a snowy Wednesday morning, but wide receiver Randy Moss and linebackers Adalius Thomas, Gary Guyton and Derrick Burgess were sent home after arriving late for an 8 a.m. meeting.
Thomas, who questioned Belichick's decision at length, was inactive Sunday despite being healthy.
But Moss didn't do much better. He had just one catch for 16 yards and has only 11 receptions in his last four games.
Wes Welker, though, had another outstanding game with 10 catches for 105 yards, his fifth 100-yard performance of the season. He joined Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice and Herman Moore as the only receivers with at least three consecutive 100-catch seasons.
The Patriots had been outscored 73-24 in the second half of their five losses but were much better on Sunday. They gained 74 yards on their first series of the third quarter before Sammy Morris lost a fumble. On their second possession, they moved 96 yards to the go-ahead touchdown. And on the third drive, they went 46 yards to set up Gostkowski's 48-yarder that made it 17-10.
Brady, who missed two days of practice with rib, finger and shoulder injuries, completed 19 of 32 passes for 192 yards. Moore went 15 for 30 for 197 yards.
Neither team did much offensively in the first half and benefited from good breaks to score their touchdowns.
Two plays after Chris Gamble intercepted Brady's pass intended for Moss, Moore hit Smith in the end zone. And four plays after the Patriots moved to the Panthers 21-yard line on the pass interference call against Dan Connor, Faulk scored.