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Patriots 24, Panthers 7

Patriots put on a show

Brady and Co. earn a resounding win

Marcellus Rivers was the recipient of a Tom Brady touchdown pass in the first half that gave the Patriots a 10-0 lead. Marcellus Rivers was the recipient of a Tom Brady touchdown pass in the first half that gave the Patriots a 10-0 lead. (CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That's more like it.

If the first two exhibition games were the football equivalent of the Patriots clearing their throats, fans were beginning to wonder if something was lodged in their windpipes. But in the all-important third preseason game -- the one we're told means the most -- New England found its voice last night, and the timbre was both distinct and dominant.

Even though the Patriots were still without some key instruments on offense (receiver Randy Moss, hamstring) and defense (ends Richard Seymour, knee; and Ty Warren, elbow; and holdout cornerback Asante Samuel) the team hit all the high notes in a 24-7 win over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

"We still left some plays out on the field that we would have liked to have made, but I thought that overall this was probably our best week of practice and was probably our best game that we've played so far this year," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "Hopefully, we can correlate that going forward."

Quarterback Tom Brady returned from the birth of his son to conduct the offense with masterful precision and running back Laurence Maroney, who was making his exhibition debut, provided the background beat with bruising runs.

Brady, who didn't come out until 6:07 remained in the third quarter, completed 17 of 22 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Maroney finished with 15 carries for 58 yards, but more importantly showed no aversion to contact after testing his surgically repaired shoulder for the first time.

"I didn't feel anything in my shoulder at all," said Maroney, who said he did have to shake off some rust. "It did boost my morale a little bit. I did think that I was going to feel it just a little bit. I knew it might hurt a little bit, but I really didn't feel nothing. It felt good, so it gave me a little bit more confidence."

At the outset it looked as if the Patriots were planning on getting an extended solo from Maroney. After going seven months without contact, the dreadlocked runner carried on the Patriots' first seven offensive plays, totaling 20 yards. Sammy Morris ended Maroney's monopolization of the ball on New England's second drive, carrying for 5 yards on fourth and 1 from the New England 24.

The conversion extended an 18-play march on which the New England offense imposed its will, taking the ball from its 5-yard line to the Carolina 5 to take a 3-0 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

The New England offense hit repeat on the following drive after Vince Wilfork was credited with blocking a 49-yard field goal attempt by Carolina's John Kasay. The Patriots ran the ball on seven of the 10 plays on the drive, which ended with Brady finding tight end Marcellus Rivers for a 6-yard touchdown.

The Patriots, who finished with 148 yards on 36 carries, ran the ball on their first nine offensive snaps, setting the tempo.

"That's something that we really wanted to emphasize -- the running game," said wide receiver Kelley Washington. "We know offensively . . . it doesn't matter how many receivers we have and tight ends. If we can't run the football then we're not going to have a good season and be good offensively."

While the New England offense was vibing, the defense was keeping the Panthers off-key.

Rodney Harrison was his usual active self. One week after he crushed Titans quarterback Vince Young, Harrison hit the whammy bar on Carolina receiver Steve Smith, belting him after a 15-yard reception in the second quarter.

The Panthers had just 13 rushing yards in the first half. Carolina had 124 yards of total offense in the first half and 48 of those came on a touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Keary Colbert with 34 seconds left before the half. Patriots rookie Mike Richardson appeared to slip on the play, which cut the New England lead to 10-7 at the half.

It could have been more if a holding call hadn't short-circuited another drive, resulting in a missed 53-yard field goal attempt by Gostkowski, which set up Carolina's touchdown.

Gostkowski, who also missed a 46-yarder in the fourth quarter, is 3 for 6 this exhibition season, after going 9 for 9 last year in the preseason.

The Patriots expanded their advantage to 24-7 by the end of third quarter, thanks to Heath Evans. The veteran fullback, who has just one regular-season touchdown, scored two in the third quarter.

On Brady's final series, the opening series of the third quarter, he found Evans for an 8-yard touchdown to finish a 77-yard drive. Operating out of the two-minute offense, Brady was 5 for 7 on the drive, including a 37-yard strike to Donte' Stallworth.

"That was a nice, successful drive and Donte' made a nice play to get the ball down the field," said Belichick. "That was a good series."

After the Patriots blocked another Kasay field goal -- this time it was Jarvis Green, who looked as if he blocked the first one, too -- Evans provided the closing act with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Then it was time for the Patriots to take a bow after scoring their first win of the exhibition season. Remember, though, no matter how impressive, it was just a rehearsal for the real thing, against the Jets Sept. 9 at Giants Stadium.

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