View top photos of the game against the Patriots by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.
CHARLOTTE – In many respects, head coach Ron Rivera was happier with his team's performance in a 17-16 loss to the New England Patriots on Friday night than he was after his team's two preseason victories.
In the simplest terms, Carolina moved the ball more consistently on offense and stopped it more consistently on defense.
The improvement on third downs, a primary concern of Rivera's, tells more of that story. The Panthers' starting offense was 5-for-8, and the starting defense only allowed New England's starters to convert 1-of-5 third downs in the first half.
"There were really a lot of good things that went on out there," said Rivera, who played his starters through the first half and one series into the third quarter. "We put ourselves in position – now we just have to capitalize. That's probably the biggest disappointment."
Failure to capitalize cost the Panthers a victory.
"We have to find way to win," quarterback Cam Newton said. "Today, we found ways to lose."
In the first half, the Panthers intercepted quarterback Tom Brady on back-to-back series, and the defense forced five three-and-outs. Offensively, Carolina had two drives start in New England territory, plus two others that began within a few yards of midfield.
But they had only six points and a one-point deficit to show for it at halftime.
"With the defense playing like they did, we have to find a way to put more points on the board," Newton said.
Carolina's first possession, which began at the New England 48-yard line, ended quickly when running back Jonathan Stewart was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1.
Later, cornerback Charles Tillman ripped the ball away from wide receiver Aaron Dobson for an interception and a 37-yard return to the Carolina 44, which set up the game's first points. The Panthers marched 54 yards in nine plays and settled for a 20-yard Graham Gano field to take a 3-0 first quarter lead.
Safety Kurt Coleman picked off Brady's pass over the middle for Dobson on the third play of the next series, and following an unnecessary roughness penalty on linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers took over at the New England 48.
Carolina proceeded to go three-and-out after three straight incompletions.
But with the defense keeping New England at bay, the Panthers were in prime position to reach the end zone and extend the lead in the second quarter.
Newton targeted wide receiver Corey Brown on first down from the Patriots' 30-yard line and the pass to the end zone was right on the money, but Brown dropped it. Five plays later, on third-and-four from the 12, Brown dropped a pass that would have moved the chains.
Gano then converted a 30-yard field goal to give Carolina a 6-0 lead with 2:13 left in the half.
New England took advantage of the time left and jumped ahead with an effective two-minute drill. Brady dropped a perfect pass down the left sideline and into the hands of tight end Scott Chandler for an 18-yard touchdown. The late scoring drive accounted for 80 of the Patriots' 116 yards in the first half.
"They made a couple plays," Rivera said. "You are talking about a Hall of Fame quarterback, and the two-minute drill is what he does."
Carolina produced an ideal response to start the second half.
Newton was 5-for-5 on the drive and his fifth completion was a 2-yard touchdown pass to fullback Mike Tolbert off play-action, which gave Carolina a 13-7 lead.
"It was essential," Tolbert said. "First drive of the second half we marched right down the field and put points on the board. That's what we needed to see."
The Panthers let two golden opportunities for defensive touchdowns slip away during New England's first third-quarter possession, as cornerbacks Bene Benwikere and Josh Norman each dropped potential pick-sixes thrown by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a span of four plays.
"I was already celebrating," Benwikere said, shaking his head. "Just lost focus. Can't lose focus."
After the Patriots punted, quarterback Derek Anderson took over with the second team for his lone series of the game and nearly found the end zone.
Anderson got into a groove and connected on his first four pass attempts. But on third-and-4 from the Patriots' 20-yard line, his pass toward the end zone for running back Jordan Todman was just out of reach. Carolina settled for a 39-yard Gano field goal.
New England rallied in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo found Dobson for a 40-yard gain and connected with running back Dion Lewis for a 9-yard score on the next play.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots in front with a 53-yard field goal with 6:14 remaining in the game.
Unlike the previous two games, there was no fourth-quarter magic from quarterback Joe Webb and the Panthers reserves. But Rivera is encouraged heading into Thursday's fourth and final preseason game at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I think we are getting better," Rivera said. "We are heading in the right direction, and I'm fired up about that."
INJURY UPDATES: Cornerback Charles Tillman left the game with a head injury and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery injured his groin, though Rivera said Cotchery's injury does not appear serious.
Defensive end Charles Johnson (calf), defensive tackle Kawann Short (back) and wide receiver Devin Funchess (hamstring) did not play but Rivera said they are all close to returning to game action.
"They are very close," Rivera said. "If this was the regular season those guys would have probably played."
View game action photos from Carolina's 17-16 preseason loss to New England.