If you went looking for positives in the Carolina Panthers’ eventual 17-16 home exhibition loss to New England on Friday night, you certainly could find them.
Carolina’s first-team defense played well – intercepting Tom Brady twice, sacking him once and for the most part making life difficult for the poster boy of “Deflategate.” And the first-team offense finally scored a touchdown on its eighth possession of the night, when Cam Newton found Mike Tolbert on a 2-yard pass early in the third quarter.
If you went looking for negatives in the Carolina Panthers’ loss to New England on Friday night, you certainly could find those, too.
The first-team offense couldn’t get in the end zone in seven first-half tries, even though Newton threw what should have been a 30-yard TD pass to Corey Brown.
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Instead, Brown dropped it, continuing his own bizarre theme of the preseason. The more the Panthers try to make him a starter, the more Brown looks jittery and overwhelmed.
And the Panthers’ defense wasn’t perfect, either. It allowed Brady to move the ball for 80 yards and an 18-yard touchdown pass on what would be his last drive of the game – the two-minute drill late in the first half.
That TD made the score 7-6 New England at halftime, even though Carolina had the ball longer in that half and for the most part had moved it more effectively.
Again, the Panthers had trouble in the red zone – a first down at the New England 7 netted only three points – and in short-yardage situations. It’s that familiar problem where the Panthers are concerned: Can they score enough to make a top-10 defense’s top-notch work count?
Brown’s drops were the team’s most obvious flaw. Brown has now let a potential touchdown pass slip through his hands for two straight weeks, and he had his hands on at least four balls Friday night that ended up hitting the ground instead.
Said Carolina coach Ron Rivera afterward – while still sounding like he would stick with Brown as a starter for now: “The truth of the matter is he is putting too much pressure on himself. … We believe in him. We believe in who he is.”
The Panthers never did bench Brown, but almost about every attempt at force-feeding him confidence with yet another throw failed. And Brown’s drops seemed to be contagious. Cornerbacks Bené Benwikere and Josh Norman both let fairly easy interceptions slip right through their hands.
With that said, when both teams were playing their starters the game was about even or maybe even tilted a bit in the Panthers’ favor.
That’s a good thing from Carolina’s standpoint, given the starting offense’s lousy performance a week ago and the fact that New England is the reigning Super Bowl champions. (The Patriots did not play their two best pass-catchers in Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, so that helped a little).
The Panthers played New England at the exact same moment of the preseason in 2014, and in that game New England won 30-7 and demolished the Panthers. Newton got hurt, too.
So by that standard, this was a night of enormous progress. An unhurt Newton had a pretty sharp night. He was 17 for 28 for 160 yards, one TD and no interceptions. And of those 11 incompletions, at least five were outright drops. Even the normally reliable Greg Olsen had one.
Carolina ended up losing the game when – for the first time in its three exhibitions – its third-stringers came from ahead to lose rather than vice versa.
Quarterback Joe Webb couldn’t conjure the magic of his first two games in August (he went 0-for-6 under serious pressure), and New England ended up winning on a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski midway through the fourth quarter.
The loss didn’t matter any more than the Panthers’ wins in the previous two exhibitions did. All three one-point games will be wiped away soon.
All we will be left with is a football spiraling through the air, heralding the beginning of the real 2015 NFL season.
I just hope Corey Brown isn’t the one who is supposed to catch it.