By: Bob George/
August 29, 2004

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When the chips are down and things are for real, it won't be Kliff Kingsbury out there trying to pull off a Tom Brady rally.

What you will see in such a rally is a quarterback who threw something like 18 of 27 passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns on the road against their Super Bowl foes with a crazed desire to crush them badly, not a marginal thrower who has done literally nothing in two Augusts to show that the Patriots desperately need to hold on to him as their third stringer. You'll see Deion Branch and David Patten and Daniel Graham make tough catches in tight situations, instead of relying on someone like Michael Jennings or Ricky Bryant to make heroic plays. Ty Law will stuff Steve Smith when it counts, not Walter Young burning Earthwind Moreland for the game-winning score.

The first units for both teams departed after three quarters, with the Patriots leading 17-10 in a game which had eerily mirrored the Super Bowl almost exactly. But the Panther scrubs outscored the Patriot scrubs 10-0 down the stretch, and the Super Bowl runners-up came away with a 20-17 preseason win over the Patriots. To make things a little tasty, the Patriots did actually get into position for a game-tying 56-yard field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri with three seconds left. But the legendary kicker pushed a long-enough attempt just a bit wide right as the final gun went off.

Despite the loss, the Patriots have to be mighty happy with how this game turned out. This was a Panther squad which badly wanted to stuff the Patriots in revenge for their loss in the Super Bowl, and they had their home fans to do it in front of. But the Patriot first units played an even and steady game, albeit rife with penalties galore and some uncharacteristic turnovers. The Patriots may not be completely ready to go for their season opener, but they certainly erased any worries which may have stemmed from their putrid loss last Saturday to Cincinnati.

Brady had perhaps the best night of any Patriot, enjoying generally a very efficient evening and a nice job of managing the game (he finished with 100.4 rating points). Branch, Patten and rookie Ben Watson had at least five catches each. Brady made only one mistake by throwing an interception in the third quarter to Dan Morgan, but he had an onrushing Brentson Buckner in his face as he tried to hit Watson on a quick slant route.

Otherwise, Brady worked a terrific offensive unit by play-faking often to Corey Dillon, and the Panther defense bit on these fakes most every time. Brady followed his Super Bowl tactics somewhat by rolling out and away from potential pass rushers, but overall Brady had enough time to throw against the vaunted Panther defensive line. Brady was sacked in the first quarter by Julius Peppers, who beat Tom Ashworth badly with nary a tight end to help the Patriot right tackle out.

Patten made a great case for the Patriots to retain his services. In the second quarter, Patten hauled in two catches for 23 yards on successive plays, and on both plays he was fouled by Panther defenders. He caught a six-yard pass despite getting facemasked by rookie Chris Gamble, and he then caught a 17-yard left sideline pass despite being held by Mike Minter.

These two grabs helped set up the second Patriot touchdown, which helped cap a terrific evening for Watson. Despite his long holdout, he looks like he fits in just fine with six grabs for 49 yards. His touchdown catch was on a quick slant at the goal line in traffic, and he made the score despite Morgan being draped all over him. He and Graham look to be a formidable pass catching duo this season, and all worries that the long time off would hurt Watson might be unfounded.

Graham had only two catches. But one of them was off of a broken play where he slipped into the clear at the Panther five-yard line, and hauled in a 46-yard scoring toss from Brady. Brady rolled left, saw both his wideouts covered, then looked back the other way at Graham, his third read. He fired a pass that probably went 65 yards in the air to the right corner, and Graham was there to haul in the pass and thrust his way into the end zone for a 7-0 Patriot first quarter lead.

The defense, while turning in a respectable job despite being without Ty Law, still can't consistently stuff Jake Delhomme. Law was a late scratch after pulling up lame in pregame warm-ups, and Asante Samuel took his place at left corner. The Patriots pitched a shutout early on, but that was because the Panthers decided to feature DeShawn Foster early (Stephen Davis was out with an injury) and got next to nothing to show for it. Foster finished with 10 carries for 16 yards, leaving the entire offensive load to fall on Delhomme's shoulders.

Delhomme came through with a decent, if not spectacular, 18 of 31 passing night for 201 yards and a touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl in the second quarter from nine yards out. Like the Super Bowl, Delhomme had fair to poor first and third quarters and a terrific second quarter (10 for 17, 148 yards). But it was Proehl who gave the Patriots the most fits and not so much Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, as he continued to find open seams in the Patriot secondary. On the touchdown pass, Proehl slipped behind Tyrone Poole and the Patriot cornerback never turned around to look at the pass.

Turnovers aside (Brady's pick and two Patriot fumbles, neither of which were lost), penalties will be at or near the top of Bill Belichick's to-do list this week. The Patriots incurred 15 penalties for 128 yards in a game filled with ticky-tack calls which probably are rooted in the league's desire to crack down on illegal contact by defenders. But not all penalties were by the defense; four false starts were called on the Patriots in the first half. The Panthers weren't much better, as they were flagged eight times for 75 yards.

One other interesting wrinkle was on defense. Frequently, both Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork were out there together on defense. Both men are being groomed to replace Ted Washington at nose tackle. But unless Wilfork is being sized up at an end position, one has to wonder if the Patriots are experimenting with a 4-3 formation. The Patriots often times mix up their defense and go 4-3 despite being a base 3-4. The defense was terrific in shutting down Foster, but that result may also be a product of better linebacker play versus the nose tackle play.

Once the starters left, the game morphed into a display of Kingsbury and his lack of readiness to step in and lead the Patriots to victory. Rodney Peete, the veteran who backs up Delhomme, was marvelous in his quarter of play, hitting on 7 of 12 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown (and a 108.7 passer rating), providing the needed leadership to rally for a win which Kingsbury could not do himself. Kingsbury looked generally indecisive and shaky out there even when he did complete passes. The Patriots were in a position to tie the game with three seconds left only because Kingsbury scrambled for eight yards to the Patriot 47, then was hit late out of bounds by Brandon Short (who intercepted him on the previous drive, setting up Peete's decisive scoring pass) which advanced the ball to the Panther 38.

The Patriots have only five days to get ready for their preseason finale at home against Jacksonville. After Saturday's game, the starters may play one series and sit for the evening. Belichick got a great effort from his top units, and had they played the entire game, likely would have held on for a win.

This is why they still won the war. They will get tough battles like this all year long, and this was one of the toughest ones they will face.