Observation Deck: New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is always a danger of reading too much into preseason football, so this thought is passed along with a note of caution: If the New England Patriots play defense like they did Friday night against the Carolina Panthers, they will position themselves as the team to beat in the AFC.

Some might argue they are already there, but what stood out was the way they swarmed the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton, who didn't score during their time on the field (into the third quarter).

Outside linebacker/defensive end Chandler Jones was one of the star performers, working against converted right tackle Byron Bell and picking up two sacks and another tackle for a loss. Meanwhile, the coverage in the secondary was generally up to par and there weren’t as many penalty flags for illegal contact and defensive holding as there were in the first two weeks of the preseason.

Here are some other thoughts on the game:

  • No. 2 quarterback Ryan Mallett came on for the third series of the game, before Tom Brady returned for the rest of the half and into the third quarter. We’ve seen Bill Belichick thrust his top backup into the early going of a preseason game unexpectedly in the past, with the message to always be ready. Belichick confirmed in a halftime television interview that was exactly what he was thinking when inserting Mallett into the game.

  • Brady was especially sharp (17-of-21, 204 yards, 2 touchdowns). He looks ready to go and there's probably no need to play him in the preseason finale Thursday on the road against the New York Giants.

  • When the Patriots put two versatile running backs in the game at the same time, how will defenses match them? That’s something to consider after watching Shane Vereen catch a short pass from Brady and race 40 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown in the second quarter. Vereen and running back James White were on the field at the same time on the play, as the Patriots used that “pony” grouping six times in the opening half.

  • Receiver Josh Boyce, the 2013 fourth-round draft choice from Texas Christian, didn’t play an offensive snap until there was 1:26 remaining in the third quarter. That reflects how he’s decisively behind Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell on the receiver depth chart.

  • For the fantasy folks, Vereen’s 26 snaps in the first half of this “dress rehearsal” game were notable. That was easily a team-high among running backs.

  • No doubt that kicker Stephen Gostkowski is ready for the regular season. His 60-yard field goal at the closed end of the stadium with 3 seconds remaining in the second quarter was one of the more impressive plays of the night.

  • While not Patriots-specific, it was hard not to be impressed with Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the first-round pick from Florida State. He had his hands full with Darrelle Revis and made some plays.