CHARLOTTE – The third preseason game is like the dress rehearsal for the starters. And if you're going to assess your first team after their heaviest workload of the preseason, what better way to do it than by playing the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
"We're really going to be able to test ourselves against this team," linebacker Thomas Davis said.
Oddly enough, the teams also faced one another in the third preseason game last year, which the Patriots dominated en route to a 30-7 victory. While that matchup was at New England, the Panthers will play host at Bank of America Stadium on Friday night.
Head coach Ron Rivera said his starters will play into the third quarter, as is typical.
"We'll see how things go in the first half but we do want to carry them into the third quarter," Rivera said. "We want to have at least one series in the third quarter so we can get used to going in at halftime and coming out ready to roll."
Rivera is also hopeful his team will come out ready to roll when the game begins. Carolina's first-team produced sluggish starts in the two previous preseason contests, and it's been a point of emphasis entering the third game.
"(The goal is to) get points early with the first offense and not start slow," wide receiver Corey Brown said. "We just want to start fast as a unit. We don't want to let anything get in our way."
Defensively, Carolina knows the challenge future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady presents. But with Brady's four-game suspension approaching, the Panthers may see more of backup Jimmy Garappolo, who has completed 48-of-63 passes for 428 yards and one touchdown through two preseason games.
"I like his presence in the pocket – he seems to have done a really nice job," Rivera said of Garappolo. "He's picked up what they're doing, handling calls at the line of scrimmage. I think he's come along very nicely for them."
The Panthers will be sufficiently challenged on both sides of the ball, and Rivera will be keeping a close eye on his team's third-down effectiveness, which he's expressed disappointment with after both preseason games.
Carolina has converted 6-of-24 third downs, and opponents have converted 15-of-31 third down opportunities.
"Third downs on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively, the first units were not good enough," Rivera said.
They'll need to show improvement Friday against the Patriots in the tune-up for the regular season.
"It's our best opportunity to get game reps," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We'll understand where we are and see what steps we need to take."