By: Bob George/
August 25, 2007

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No exhibition grudge match this time. The Patriots would not stand for it.

Except for one long touchdown bomb late in the first half, the Patriots did little wrong and most everything right in their preseason tuneup against the Carolina Panthers on Friday night at Bank of America Stadium. Even the scrubs looked dominating in a 24-7 Patriot victory, their first of the 2007 preseason against two losses. But as far as things go for the guys who really will make the team, if this game was a barometer of how things will go when things are for real, the pressure is above 30 inches of mercury and still rising.

Perhaps the most uplifting element of the game was how well Tom Brady played. Looking like a man with the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders now that he is finally a father, Brady enjoyed a terrific game statistically, and a comfortable game thanks to much better pass blocking than last week against Tennessee. Brady had plenty of time to pick apart the top Panther defense, and looked like his old sweet self in doing so.

The way things started out, one might have thought that Brady would be a decoy more than anything else. The first nine offensive plays were runs, eight by Laurence Maroney and one by Sammy Morris. The Patriots seemed intent on getting Maroney reacclamated to getting hit given all the time he has spent in practices with a red non-contact jersey, and he responded with 58 yards on 15 carries and an average just under four yards per carry. Morris chipped in with 28 yards on seven carries, an average about the same as Maroney's.

The only thing interesting about all these runs was where they ran. Using a strategy that worked well when these two teams met in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Patriots often ran right at Julius Peppers, the All-Pro left end who is one of the best pass rushers in the league. Thanks to all this running, the Patriots held the ball for just over 21 minutes in the first half and kept Jake Delhomme mostly on the bench. Delhomme was never able to get into a rhythm thanks to this.

Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth showed glimpses of what they have to offer in 2007. Welker caught three first-half passes for 30 total yards. Showing incredible consistency, all three passes were of the slant variety out of the slot, and all three passes went for ten yards. Stallworth caught a 37-yard bomb early in the third quarter, but it was largely because Ken Lucas missed the play rather than Stallworth beating him with sheer speed. Nevertheless, Stallworth hauled in the jump ball and looked good in doing so.

Brady finished with 17 of 22 passing for 167 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was 128.4. He threw short touchdown scores to Marcellus Rivers (six yards) and Heath Evans (eight yards). But Brady looked as cool and as calm as ever, was never hurried or threatened, and showed everyone how he can dice and slice even the best of defenses when he has the time to.

The first defense almost pitched its second straight shutout. Playing again without Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, the intensity of the defense once again shone through. Steve Smith caught a 15-yard pass in the second period but got blasted by Rodney Harrison for his trouble. Adalius Thomas and Tedy Bruschi helped hold DeShawn Foster to zero yards on three carries, and DeAngelo Williams to 29 yards on nine carries. Randall Gay had a solid game at cornerback, playing Smith relatively well and making nobody pine too terribly for Asante Samuel, though reports are now surfacing that the latter might be in camp sometime this week.

If there was one Patriot who had a tough night, it was kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He hit a 23-yard field goal in the first quarter, but pushed his next two wide left (a 53-yarder in the second and a 46-yarder in the fourth). He will get no sympathy from his opposite number, however, as Jon Kasay had both his field goal attempts blocked (Jarvis Green and Vince Wilfork doing the honors).

Mike Richardson, a sixth-round pick out of Notre Dame, might also hear from Bill Belichick this week. On the one scoring play of the evening for Carolina, Delhomme was able to hit Keary Colbert on a quick slant which he broke for 48 yards and a score late in the first half. On the play, Bruschi was downfield trying to cover Colbert while Richardson was totally out of position and his back to the receiver. Smith made a nice block on Gay to spring Colbert to the end zone.

But the Patriots really have little to complain about. Matt Cassel looked a little better, if not spectacular, in limited third quarter action. Oscar Lua, the intriguing seventh round linebacker from USC, picked off a David Carr pass halfway through the fourth quarter (Carr, the former Texan starter, was 8 of 11 for 58 yards before leaving after the pick). C.J. Jones tried to show off to everyone by taking a kickoff six yards deep in the end zone and making a 29-yard return out of it, though he remains a longshot to make the final cut.

As third preseason games go, the Patriots scored big with this one. They can now take their finale next week at home against the Giants and totally focus on which scrubs make the team and which ones don't. Most of the front line players need not play at all. Matt Cassel and Matt Gutierrez might just divide up the entire game at quarterback (unless Belichick insists on forcing us to watch Vinny Testaverde show up the young guys out there, if that's what you can call it). Keep everyone on the bench and uninjured, and get ready for the Jets in September.

When you think of that 2004 grudge match between these two teams, this game was a far cry from that evening. The only emotion the Panthers showed all evening was Smith's reaction to the hard hit he got from Harrison. Other than that, it was the Patriots who had all the emotion and energy all evening long. It seems that even those Panthers who still remain from their NFC championship team from 2003 don't think much about that Super Bowl loss in Houston.

One more pretend game to go. You are forgiven if you can't wait until it's the green New York team on tap instead of the blue one.