CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Last night's postgame buzzword for the Patriots was improvement. Granted, when you're coming off a 31-3 loss, it doesn't take much to utter such a word.
But they were correct: In last night's 20-17 exhibition loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots looked closer to regular-season form than to their inept output against the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago.
Consider that the Patriots' starters played three quarters, and when they were done for the evening, New England was ahead, 17-10. Moreover, the contest that matched the participants of February's Super Bowl was played with plenty of intensity.
Quarterback Tom Brady completed 13 of his first 15 passes and finished 18 of 27 for 217 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. He completed passes to five receivers, with both his touchdown throws to tight ends. It was part of an improved passing attack that has been maligned during the preseason.
"[Brady] was picking up everything we were doing, and he was making plays," said Panthers safety Mike Minter. "He had a lot of time to throw the ball and you're going to find somebody."
Running back Corey Dillion rushed for 50 yards on 13 carries. Equally proficient was the Patriots' defense. Safety Rodney Harrison led the starters with six tackles and Terrell Buckley, Ted Johnson, and Dan Klecko had four apiece.
But the offense was not without its faults. The Patriots were levied with 13 penalties for 113 yards through three quarters alone. They finished with 15 penalties for 128 yards. "I thought there was some improvement there from last week," said coach Bill Belichick. "I thought that we did a few things better. Definitely, we played a more physical game. We ran the ball with a little bit of consistency. We played a little bit better run defense. So I think there are a few things to build on.
"We definitely still have a lot of work to do, there's no question about that. We had way too many penalties, and we had some trouble with the formations in the second quarter. Obviously, we didn't handle the end of the game situation very well with the people that were in there."
Still, the starters left the field with the lead against a solid team on both sides of the football -- before a raucous crowd of 67,688. The contest was so chippy that several players were involved in scuffles at the end of plays.
Among the Patriots who did not play were wide receiver David Givens and cornerback Ty Law (right leg injury).
The Patriots got off to a good start on their first drive of the second quarter, a three-play, 58-yard extravaganza capped by a 46-yard touchdown pass from Brady to tight end Daniel Graham.
After Carolina kicker John Kasay cut the lead on a 27-yard field goal, New England went ahead, 14-3, on a 6-yard pass from Brady to rookie tight end Benjamin Watson. Carolina cut the lead to 14-10 as quarterback Jake Delhomme completed a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ricky Proehl with 2:51 left in the second quarter.
Adam Vinatieri broke the ice in the third quarter by kicking a 20-yard field goal as time expired.
"We got off to a much better start," said Brady. "That was encouraging. Obviously, I think we would have liked to have won the game. I think everyone was in there fighting hard."
The Patriots had momentum when the starters left the game. But the Panthers cut the lead to 17-13 on a field goal by Kasay with 7:50 left in the game, then turned a Kliff Kingsbury interception into the winning score. Backup quarterback Rodney Peete hooked up with wide receiver Walter Young for an 18-yard score with 1:48 left.
Vinatieri missed a 56-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Delhomme completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown and led the Panthers with 29 yards on two carries.
"The good thing is that we beat a very good team," said Delhomme. "It was a good test, and we did some things with throwing the ball."
The Patriots host the Jacksonville Jaguars Thursday night in their final tuneup before the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium. Brady said last night's game was among one of the most physical he's ever been involved in, and that was by design.
"We prepared [last week] like we were playing a real game and that's how it felt," he said. "This was a full dress rehearsal. There was no messing around. I'm glad the way we came out and played from what happened last week. We came out with a lot of pride."