With third preseason affairs the game in which the first teams get the most action, all eyes were on the starters to see if they could rebound from their dismal performance last week against the Bengals.
The verdict: yes and no.
At times both the Patriots offense and defense looked good, but with 12 penalties in the first half and some defensive breakdowns against the pass, no one is getting excited about a 17-10 lead after the starters for both teams left the contest.
At the finish, the Carolina scrubs made up the difference against their Patriot counterparts and then some, taking a 20-17 win.
The league's "point of emphasis" on contact beyond the 5-yard line was in full force in this game with both teams victim of watchful referee eyes. That was no excuse for the multitude of other penalties that had coaches on both sidelines shaking their heads.
Tom Brady's play was a bright spot. After the first half of play he was 14 of 18 passing for 179 yards and two touchdowns against a formidable Panthers defense (he finished 18 of 27 for 217 yards, 2 TDs and an interception). David Patten led the way in the receiving department with 6 catches for 62 yards.
Then again, there was Brady's second series of the third quarter where he beaned one Panther in the helmet with a pass then threw an interception right to Dan Morgan.
Run defense for New England looked miles ahead of last week, with Keith Traylor and Ted Johnson plugging the middle effectively. Subtract Jake Delhomme's 29 scrambling yards and the Panthers were held to 16 yards on the ground after three quarters. But when Delhomme went to the air, the Patriots had problems.
And then there were the penalties; 15 for 128 yards.
New England looked like it might get some point production with its first drive but it was stalled when Julius Peppers beat Tom Ashworth and sacked Brady for a 16-yard loss on third down. Up to that point Brady had completed four straight passes, three to David Patten and one to Benjamin Watson down to the Panthers 36.
After holding the Panthers to three and out, the Patriots second drive was riddled with penalties, the most costly being a hold on Corey Dillon as Brady connected with Bethel Johnson on a beautiful bomb downfield. Dillon's lazy block on a blitzing Dan Morgan negated the completion that would have had the Patriots deep in Carolina territory.
The Patriots finally made a drive count on their third try, despite another two penalties. The scoring play was a 46-yard Brady to Graham pass in which the tight end was wide-open 5 yards outside of the end zone. Deion Branch chipped in with a 20-yard reception of his own to begin the scoring drive. The series saw Adrian Klemm replace Matt Light at left tackle, Joe Andruzzi moving to left guard and replacing Russ Hochstein and Stephen Neal entering the game at right guard.
Carolina went to the air on its third drive as the second quarter began, but the big play came in a scramble by Delhomme that ended with Dan Klecko laying a late hit on the Panther quarterback as he went into his slide. That penalty, the eighth to that point for the Patriots, put Carolina on the 14-yard line with a first down.
Despite getting to the Patriots 9, Delhomme could not get his team into the end zone. A third down pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage with Tedy Bruschi clobbering Delhomme just as he got the pass off. Both Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel had good chances at a pick. John Kasay came on to kick a 27-yard field goal to make the score 7-3.
When Carolina's Chris Gamble grabbed Patten's facemask after a 5-yard pick-up, the Patriots took the extra 15 yards to the Panthers 37. That took place on the Patriots next possession. Patten followed that catch up with a 17-yarder. Four plays later, Watson took a Brady 6-yard pass and bulled his way into the end zone for the score.
Delhomme made it look easy on his next drive, hooking up with old Patriots nemesis Ricky Proehl three straight times for 32, 18 and a 9-yard touchdown. The New England defense looked its sloppiest during this series, with a Roman Phifer missed tackle early in the drive that allowed for a 12-yard pick-up by Brad Hoover and a couple mix-ups in the secondary that had Harrison screaming at his teammates and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini on the sidelines.
With the score 14-10, New England took over with just over two minutes left in the half but three straight incompletes gave the ball right back to the Panthers with 1:39 left.
New England escaped damage after Carolina made it down to the 8-yard line (two more Patriots penalties and a Delhomme 18-yard scramble the big contributors) and DeShaun Foster fumbled. Richard Seymour recovered and the Patriots offense took a knee to end the half.
Neither team could add to their tallies until, at the end of the third quarter, Adam Vinatieri was good on a 20-yard field goal to up the Patriots lead to 17-10. New England, still with Brady in the game, got down to the Panthers 9-yard line but could not punch it in.
As the fourth quarter began, Rodney Peete came in for relief of Delhomme who finished 18 of 31 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown. New England followed suit with massive substitutions to its defense.
For the New England offense, Kliff Kingsbury took the fourth quarter snaps, bypassing Rohan Davey.
For those keeping score, Carolina had a fourth quarter 26-yard field goal to make the score 17-13. Later, as Kingsbury engineered a drive that had his team on the Carolina 27 and going for a first down on fourth and 5, he threw a pick to Brandon Short who returned it to the Patriots 39. Peete then hit Eugene Baker for a 21-yard gain and rifled a scoring strike to Walter Young for the game winner.
The final play of the game was Vinatieri missing on a 56-yard field goal attempt.
Notes: Ty Law was not listed on the original Patriots inactive list but did not dress for the game. Word was that his leg tightened up before the game. … Carolina played without its starting running back Stephen Davis. …The first half scoring was exactly the same as in Super Bowl XXXVIII where Brady threw for two TDs, Delhomme for one and Kasay kicked a field goal for a 14-10 score after 30 minutes. …