CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It's a good thing the curtain doesn't rise on New England's 2018 regular season for another couple of weeks, because the Patriots need more rehearsal time.
During preseason, the only time a scoreboard matters to some extent is in the third game. While next week's exhibition finale will feature mostly players who are on the brink of making the 53-man roster, the third contest is traditionally when those who are virtually certain to be on the team see their most snaps prior to September.
Yet, just like last week against Philadelphia, the Patriots elected to play their starters for only the first half. From New England's perspective, there was much to lament as Carolina took a 9-3 lead into halftime.
"Obviously we didn't play the way we wanted to play, didn't execute the way we wanted to execute," safety Duron Harmon admitted. "But at the end of the day, we got to play together. We did some good things, just not enough good things."
The Patriots defense saw the field first, and for a long time, allowing a 10-minute, 77-yard Panthers drive to open the game and the scoring. It surrendered just a field goal, though. That drive was extended in part by a questionable pass interference call against safety Devin McCourty on 3rd-and-2 down inside the New England red zone.
Mostly, though, it was Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey who inflicted the damage on that drive, with 42 yards rushing and another nine receiving.
The Patriots' pass rush managed to put a degree of heat on QB Cam Newton in the first quarter, although he managed to escape it each time. Communication issues seemed to hamper New England's secondary on a couple of occasions as well, leading to big Panther gains through the air.
"We talk about being good in the red area, forcing teams to kick three points instead of giving up touchdowns. That's one of the positives we can take from this," Harmon continued, "but we need to do better on not letting people get down and drive on us."
When Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest of the regular offense finally took the field, they had the ball barely 30 seconds before having to punt.
New England's passing attack continues to struggle, highlighted by WR Julian Edelman's pair of drops of what looked like normally catchable passes. Even Gronkowski's first appearance in a game this summer couldn't lift the O out of its funk.
Meantime, the Patriots running game seemed like it was finding a rhythm early, only to be stifled as the half wore on. A personal foul by right tackle LaAdrian Waddle didn't help, moving New England from would-be-touchdown territory inside the Panthers' 5-yard to around the 20.
"We really didn't execute well in certain situations," wide receiver Julian Edelman observed. "I had two key drops that could've extended the drives a little better. We had a penalty, a bunch of [bad] stuff. It wasn't our best performance. We'll take a look at the film and see what we can do better, go back to the practice field and work on things."
Special teams wasn't exempt from critique, either, as placekicker Stephen Gostkowski pushed a 46-yard attempt just barely wide right to keep the score 6-3 with under two minutes to play in the half. A penalty also wiped out a nice second-half kickoff return by Cyrus Jones, making his preseason debut after a year on the shelf because of a knee injury.
Gostkowski later atoned for his earlier mistake by drilling 52-yard field goal, but by then (4th quarter), the losing outcome had long been decided.
"I don't know about this third-game thing that everyone talks about," added Edelman. "It was good to go play against a really good defense and see what you got. We proved that we have a long way to go."
The most encouraging news of the night may have involved rookie LB Ja'Whaun Bentley. He celebrated his 22nd birthday Friday by seeing some first-half playing time and making five tackles (four of them solo efforts). This makes three straight games in which Bentley has acquitted himself strongly. He looks on track to solidifying a spot on the 53.
The most potentially scary news of the night came with just under three minutes to play in the game, when running back Jeremy Hill needed to be helped to the sideline after being tackled awkwardly out of bounds by a Carolina defender.
Hill immediately went into the blue medical tent behind the Patriots bench for further examination. His night of work ended there and then, although he remained on the sideline and looked to be in good spirits afterward.
"That's always good, when you can come out of a game completely healthy," Harmon pointed out, "but obviously there are some things we need to get fixed up so that we can do better next time we step on the field."
In maybe the night's most curious development, cornerback Jason McCourty saw several snaps at safety on the final drive of the first half, and again early in the second half. Prior to Friday night, he'd played exclusively at corner.
Perhaps this was nothing more than a summer experiment. Or, like his twin brother, Devin, before him, McCourty's future on the roster might depend on his ability to convert to the deeper end of the secondary. He has not received many high-end reps at corner in this, his first summer with the Patriots.
"I'm trying to do as much as possible," McCourty told reporters after the game. "It was something that was asked of me and I took it as a great opportunity to show myself what I can do at the position. I still got a lot of work to do."
As do the rest of his Patriots teammates. If we learned anything definitive Friday night in Charlotte, it's that these Patriots have much to clean up over the next two weeks, when the final scores of games will start to count in the standings. If New England was hoping to find answers in preseason game No. 3, it only left town with more questions.