Scott Fowler

Panthers real ugly in this fake game

There was only one team on the field Friday night that looked dangerous this season, and it certainly wasn’t the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers were a danger only to themselves in a 30-7 exhibition road loss to New England. Thoroughly outplayed in every phase, the Panthers were a very long way from the team that won 12 games and a division championship in 2013.

Carolina was fortunate this one didn’t count, for this game will eventually need to be expunged from their systems. But while the game ultimately won’t get reflected on Carolina’s record, it certainly will ring some alarm bells at Bank of America Stadium.

It already has rung one – coach Ron Rivera said after the game that the Panthers would play their starters in the final exhibition at Pittsburgh on Thursday because it was obvious the team needed more work.

Meanwhile, New England’s Tom Brady made like it was the Super Bowl a decade ago, eviscerating Carolina’s defense for two touchdowns, 204 yards and a 138.9 quarterback rating in about two quarters worth of playing time. Rivera said he was “very disappointed” in Carolina’s pass rush, which led the NFL in sacks last season. Brady was never sacked Friday night and had enough time to check his phone for texts before throwing.

But even worse was Carolina’s offense. Quarterback Cam Newton had five possessions to try and get something done, and those five possessions resulted in five punts.

Newton had absolutely no help from the offensive line or any wide receiver not named Kelvin Benjamin, and to top it all off he had an injury scare after falling awkwardly while being tackled. He bruised his back, although not badly, and returned to the game after missing only one play.

Rivera said precautionary X-rays showed “nothing” and that Newton should play at least a little against Pittsburgh. But the coach emphasized that is a tentative plan because the quarterback is “pretty sore.”

To put it simply, almost all the worst fears about the Panthers were realized in a single night – only a serious injury to a key player would have made it worse. But the problems with the offensive line and the secondary and the lack of depth at key positions – it was all on display in HD.

Fortunately for the Panthers, this was a fake game. But they won’t forget about it too quickly. Rivera will make sure of that. He was obviously angry after the game.

To be fair, few teams are as good as the Patriots. And the Panthers were missing three of their best defensive players for chunks of the game. Defensive end Charles Johnson was still in Charlotte because of an injury, while middle linebacker Luke Kuechly didn’t play during the Patriots’ two TD drives and defensive end Greg Hardy went out with a bruised shoulder in the second quarter.

Kuechly was only scheduled for 15 plays. The Panthers wanted to try and take a look at the backups at linebacker, none of whom played very well.

The Patriots didn’t have all-star tight end Rob Gronkowski, but that made no difference to Brady. After the Panthers forced punts on Brady’s first two series, he then sat for a series and led the team to 17 points on his final three drives before exiting. The most glaring error was made by Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein, who got beaten badly by running back Shane Vereen on a short pass that turned into a 40-yard touchdown.

“Just anticipatory offensive football,” Brady said afterward with a shrug.

Newton wasn’t anticipating nearly as well – Rivera said the quarterback missed several throws – nor did he have nearly as good protection. His timing with all the receivers except Benjamin remained suspect.

In barely over two weeks, the Panthers play a real game.

Right now, they aren’t ready.