For a couple days this week, it was bad blood.
For a couple series Friday night, it was bad offense.
And to record their first preseason victory of 2022, the New England Patriots had to overcome a bad throw.
Quarterback Mac Jones shrugged off a slow start and hit receiver Nelson Agholor with a beautiful 45-yard pass to set up Ty Montgomery’s second-quarter touchdown and help the Pats beat the Carolina Panthers, 20-10, at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots and Panthers engaged in several fights over two days of joint practices in Foxboro this week, resulting in players being kicked out, a receiver suffering a concussion and interceptions being comically punctuated with punting celebrations toward the other team’s sideline. Friday’s game, however, featured clean, but mostly soft football.
The only noteworthy penalties were garden-variety, late-hit personal fouls by New England’s Christian Barmore and James Ferentz, and a bizarre celebration penalty on the Panthers when even players in street clothes left the sideline for the end zone after their lone (defensive) touch downs
Despite playing against a Panthers’ junior-varsity squad void of quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold and instead featuring backups PJ Walker and rookie Matt Corral, the Patriots were sluggish out of the gate. But Jones briefly came alive and the Patriots’ defense – as expected – dominated in forcing three turnovers (including a fumble recovery by Myles Bryant and an interception by Shaun Wade) and holding the Panthers’ offense out of the end zone.
After Bill Belichick called his dual-offensive coordinator system merely a “process” last week, Matt Patricia controlled the play-sheet during every series: whether quarterbacked by Jones, Brian Hoyer or rookie Bailey Zappe.
Trailing 3-0 early in the second quarter, Jones converted a third down with a swing pass to Montgomery before lofting the perfect strike to Agholor on the sideline inside Carolina’s Red Zone. Three plays later Montgomery – who sat out the first two series in favor of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson – bullied his way up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown run and a 7-3 lead.
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New England increased its lead after a forced fumble by cornerback Joshuah Bledsoe was recovered by Bryant at Carolina’s 26-yard line. Nick Folk booted a 38-yard field for a 10-3 margin.
After the touchdown drive, Jones – who started 0 for 3 – was done for the night upon completing 4 of 8 for 61 yards. Hoyer played one series before Zappe took over in the second quarter as the Patriots began subbing in second- and third-teamers as well. The rookie from Western Kentucky made the night’s biggest mistake, throwing a 50-yard Pick Six to Carolina’s Tae Hayes that tied the score at 10-10.
Backup kicker Tristian Vizcaino, who missed from 53 yards in the first half, connected from 51 to give New England a 13-10 lead early in the fourth. The Patriots added a late touchdown in the final two minutes when undrafted free agent DaMarcus Mitchell sack and stripped Walker, causing a fumble recovered by sixth-round rookie Sam Roberts in the end zone.
Rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton, who scored a touchdown last week, left with a shoulder injury after failing to catch a pass. Veteran receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey continued his push to make the roster, producing a spectacular special teams play to pin the Panthers inside their 1-yard line to supplement his six-catch performance last week.
Carolina scored first on a field goal late in the first quarter after a drive aided by the obvious roughing-the-passer penalty on Barmore. The Panthers led, 3-0, after 15 minutes as the struggling Patriots’ offense managed just 21 yards and one first down.
New England’s first two offensive possessions with its starters this preseason were underwhelming three-and-outs. The Pats played with most of their projected offensive starters other than receiver Kendrick Bourne, tight end Hunter Henry and offensive linemen Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn.
After Harris ran for six yards behind rookie first-round left guard Cole Strange on first down, receiver DeVante Parker dropped a slant pass and then Jones was sacked by a Panthers’ blitz. The Pats’ second series stalled when Jones overthrew receiver Jakobi Meyers and Stevenson on consecutive passes.
The Patriots’ first-team defense surrendered two first downs on a first-quarter drive by Carolina, but stiffened to force a punt behind a tackle-for-loss by linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley on an attempted screen pass and consecutive sacks by Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche.
New England lost its preseason opener a week to the New York Giants on a last-second field goal, 23-21.
The Patriots finish their preseason schedule Aug. 26 against old friend Josh McDaniels and the Raiders in Las Vegas, before getting ready for their season opener Sept. 11 in Miami.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism