Third game finally a charm for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Football coaches and players will search for motivation anywhere they can find it, and for the New England Patriots, their recent struggles in the third preseason game was a hot topic in recent days.

“Finally got a good one in the third game,” one veteran player said Friday night after an impressive 30-7 victory over the visiting Panthers at Gillette Stadium.

The third preseason game is often referred to as a “dress rehearsal” and that’s the way the Patriots essentially treated it, playing quarterback Tom Brady and most of their top players into the third quarter.

While it’s always dangerous to read too much into preseason football (we’re reminded of the Lions going 4-0 before their 0-16 campaign in 2008), the obvious takeaway is that the Patriots look ready for prime time. They certainly look better than they did each of the last four years in the third exhibition when they lost to St. Louis (36-35), Detroit (34-10), Tampa Bay (30-28) and Detroit again (40-9).

Just don’t expect them to buy into that line of thinking.

“We could have lost 30-7 and none of it is going to matter two weeks from now,” quarterback Tom Brady said, his remarks proven by the team's regular-season success the last four years. “I think it’s more just about our improvement and guys finding roles for themselves and getting into their game conditions. That’s what this game is all about.”

No major arguments here, and that’s why it’s best to keep any preseason result in the proper perspective. As one player said afterwards, the team is playing basic schemes and hasn’t tipped its hand as to what it will unveil when the games count for real.

Bill Belichick echoed those thoughts, adding, “This isn’t a big strategy type of game or that type of thing. It’s just about fundamentals and execution. I’m sure they weren’t running all the plays they had either so I wouldn’t make too much of it.”

At the same time, there was a reason that Panthers coach Ron Rivera was less than pleased, so it shouldn’t just be dismissed either. The Patriots often talk about playing complementary football, and they showed they are capable of doing so. That’s important to do in the preseason, or they wouldn’t play the games.

The Chandler Jones-led Patriots’ defense swarmed, with the combination of pass rush and coverage as good as we’ve seen in recent memory. The offense was also sharp -- no turnovers, good pass protection, and some explosive plays. And the special teams were much better than last week, with Stephen Gostkowski’s 60-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter the highlight.

So they’ll take it, but do so with one caveat -- keeping it in perspective.

“We just wanted to put a good game on tape,” defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said.

Mission accomplished.