FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If this third preseason contest is universally considered a "tune-up" for the regular season, it's an unreliable one at best.
In the six seasons that New England has eventually won the Super Bowl (2001, '03, '04, '14, '16, '18), the reigning NFL champs own a pedestrian 3-3 record. They've clobbered opponents (30-7 against Carolina in 2014, for instance) and been on the receiving end of beat-downs (20-3 loss at Tampa Bay in '01), yet still went on to win it all.
In seasons when they've made it to the Super Bowl, but not won it, they've been throttled in preseason game No. 3 (34-10 at Detroit in '11). There've even been years they failed to make the playoffs (2002, for example) and dominated foes in the third preseason contest (23-3 versus Carolina that year).
All this is to say that, even though the starters on offense and defense play their most significant minutes of the summer in this game, the result shouldn't send you into a state of hysteria, one way or the other.
What tonight's 10-3 victory can do, however, is give us a better idea of where this year's iteration of Bill Belichick's Patriots are ready for the 2019 regular season and where they might still be deficient.
Without most of his pass-catching weapons, QB Tom Brady had to rely on veteran Phillip Dorsett as his security blanket, and No. 13 came through, catching all seven passes thrown to him on the night. After the game, Brady told reporters he loves playing with Dorsett, who couldn't suit up against Tennessee last week because of a minor injury.
"It means a lot to me," the receiver acknowledged. "Anytime the quarterback says something positive about you like that, it definitely means a lot, especially coming from him. I literally just go out every day and try to work hard, build that connection with him. I feel like it's something we can continue.
"If they wanted me to play the whole game, I would have played the whole game, because, obviously, I missed the last game. I just wanted to get my game reps in."
New England tried to run the ball about half the time the starting unit was on the field, but a couple of untimely penalties (by TE Ryan Izzo and rookie WR Jakobi Meyers) negated what would have been a much more impressive statistical game for ball carrier Sony Michel. He finished with just 36 yards on 10 carries in a quarter-and-a-half of action, which was as far as most of the starters on offense went.
"It's part of the game," Michel said about the offense's propensity for penalties. "I think there are a lot of areas we can improve on as a team. Yeah, we want to minimize the penalties, but that's going to be a process."
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn made his second consecutive start and was a bright spot on the o-line, showing continued progress as he works his way back from an Achilles heel injury suffered last August.
Meanwhile, on defense, the Patriots looked sharp yet again. That side of the ball saw its starters play the entirety of the first half, while stuffing the Panthers' rushing attack and putting frequent pressure on the Carolina quarterbacks. Starter Cam Newton was brought down twice in the first quarter and eventually sent to the locker room prematurely with a foot injury.
Backup Kyle Allen fared no better, getting sacked once. Neither Panther passer was able to move the ball against New England's stingy defense, which yielded just 29 total net yards to Carolina in the first half.
"We just had a lot of good [pass] rushers," remarked defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who recorded one of New England's four total sacks. "Everybody was rushing the quarterback. It's preseason, though. Don't put too much into it, but it was good execution, really."
"The thing about us," safety Duron Harmon commented afterward, "we're an experienced group, veteran group. A lot of guys have played a lot of football. A lot of depth everywhere [on the roster]. We can do a lot of different things, just try to make it hard on opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks."
Overall, a mostly positive performance by the Patriots' starters. They handled the Panthers with relative ease, even if the score might not indicate it, in a game that took less than three hours to complete. They'll need to clean up their offensive penalties and hope to get some consistency in the wide receiver roster come September, but they appear to be on the right track, especially defensively.
"It was fun out there," added Harmon, "playing good football, playing hard. It was a good day. We know it's a step in the right direction. We like where we're at, where we're headed. We just have to continue to work."
Rookie Jarrett Stidham took over for Brady midway through the second quarter. A backup offensive line went in with him and didn't offer much in the way of pass protection. Carolina's defense harassed Stidham often when he dropped back to throw.
The rookie wasn't perfect, either. He incurred a rare false start penalty by a QB in the first half, lost a fumble when he was hit from behind in the second half, and was fortunate not to have had at least a couple of passes intercepted because Carolina defenders couldn't hold onto the ball.
"There are a lot of things I know we can do better," Stidham admitted in the post-game locker room. "There's a ton of stuff I can do better. I'm really looking forward to watching the film tomorrow and learning."
Stidham was given the chance to play the entirety of the game after Brady departed, while veteran Brian Hoyer remained on the sideline. It's not clear if this was simply to give Stidham some valuable game reps or if he is indeed challenging Hoyer for the job as Brady's full-time backup. It came as a surprise to Stidham, he confessed, that he got so much playing time versus Carolina.
"My thing is, always try to be ready," he continued. "Whenever my number's called, just go out there and try and help the team as much as I can."
Meanwhile, looks like there's a swing-tackle competition on the offensive line between Cole Croston and Dan Skipper. Both men played on the backup o-line for Stidham, with Skipper beginning as the left tackle and Croston the right. They switched roles in the second half. In all likelihood, there won't be room on the 53-man roster for two backup tackles. It would seem the coaching staff is trying to see which of these two players is more versatile.
On special teams, following the release earlier in the week of veteran Ryan Allen, rookie Jake Bailey saw his first action since winning the punting job. His first boot went 56 yards, the second one 41 and downed at the Carolina 8-yard line. He averaged a solid 48 yards exactly on four punts.
Bailey's one miscue, it appeared, came on Stephen Gostkowski's unsuccessful 43-yard field goal attempt. As Gostkowski's holder, Bailey spun the laces of the football the wrong way. They ended up facing backward toward the kicker, instead of forward, meaning Gostkowski kicked the laces rather than the smooth side of the football. That could have played a role in why the kick sailed wide left of the uprights.
Elsewhere, Gunner Olszewski, a rookie brought in on a tryout basis during the spring, has shown impressive skills as a punt returner this summer. With second-year man Braxton Berrios inactive against the Panthers, Olszewski handled all the punt returns for New England and looked good doing so.
A penalty brought back one of Olszewski's long returns in the first half, but he electrified the crowd on a few other occasions with his elusiveness and burst of speed. Olszewski has been confident, made good decisions, and protected the football in his several punt return opportunities during the preseason. He's putting serious pressure on Berrios for this role at the moment.
"Gunner always gives us a spark," Dorsett grinned. "He's a wrecking ball. He just goes out there, he puts his body on the line every day, and we love that."
That said, Olszewski, playing wide receiver, made a great catch over the middle during the fourth quarter, but took a hard hit from a Carolina defender and needed to go into the medical tent for observation. He didn't finish the game.
New England appeared to dodge a bullet when LB Kyle Van Noy suffered a left knee injury while sacking Panthers QB Cam Newton on Carolina's second possession. He needed assistance from the medical staff on the field for a few moments before being taken inside the blue pop-up medical tent behind the bench for further evaluation.
Van Noy later did some running on the sideline to test the knee out and remained on the bench thereafter. He went back into the game in the mid-second quarter.
The news wasn't as encouraging for several other Patriots, however. TE Benjamin Watson was shaken up after he took a hard, late hit with about a minute left in the first quarter. He never returned to the field. Neither did rookie RB Damien Harris, who needed help from the medical staff to get off the field with about five minutes to play in the first half.
The worst development involved veteran special teams contributor Brandon King. With less than two minutes to go in the first half, King seemed to suffer a serious knee injury. A cart was needed to take him to the locker room after several of his teammates rushed onto the field to offer their good wishes. Scenes like this tend to foreshadow season-ending diagnoses.
Fourteen Patriots didn't dress for Thursday night's contest, either due to injury or some other off-field reason. As noted earlier, Berrios was among them. He had a pregame health evaluation on the field (for reasons unclear) and was deemed unfit to play against Carolina. He was at practice Tuesday, the most recent padded practice, so, it's possible he came down with something at that time.