FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick can deny that the New England Patriots’ 30-7 win on Friday night was a sign for things to come in 2014, but he isn’t fooling anyone.
The Patriots first-team offense and defense dominated the Carolina Panthers — a playoff team that New England famously lost to last season in devastating fashion — and they didn’t even have a full arsenal of weapons.
Belichick said a preseason game — even a big win — can be tough to judge because the teams aren’t game planning for one another.
“It’s about basic football, and it’s not anything close to a regular-season game in terms of game planning and situational football and doing strategically the things that you would do,” Belichick said Friday night at Gillette Stadium. “I’m not saying the players don’t play hard and they don’t compete at a high level. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying the strategy and the game planning and the amount of attacking your opponent is, I mean we’re just playing too many people to do that. We have 90 guys out there, we can’t game plan for 90 guys, we can barely get it right when we have 46.”
Game planning has never been much of a problem for the Patriots in the past. And if Friday night’s game was a test of talent versus talent, then the Patriots certainly won that battle against a very good team.
Starting quarterback Tom Brady — fresh off an offseason with murmurs that he’s no longer “elite” or on the “Mount Rushmore” of current quarterbacks — was basically perfect. He went 17-for-21 and really only blew one throw — a short hop that either was intended for fullback James Develin or wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
Brady’s other incompletions can be chalked up to wide receiver error, something he grew accustomed to during a turbulent 2013 season. Brady was a perfect 15-for-15 when he was targeting his favorite receivers — Shane Vereen, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola — and he had moments that stood out while throwing to Kenbrell Thompkins and Brandon LaFell.
The Patriots’ offense will have a new look in 2014, but at least they’ve planned all offseason for it by acquiring players like LaFell. If training camp and preseason is any indication, the Patriots will be running out more four-wide receiver and two-running back sets, and after years of relying on deception with two starting-caliber tight ends, they’ll have to make up for their newfound predictability with higher tempos and more finesse.
The Patriots’ defense will be tough to stop even if opposing offenses can see right through them. A better secondary, already highlighted by Darrelle Revis, constantly put Panthers quarterback Cam Newton at risk for impact. Chandler Jones, with two sacks, and Rob Ninkovich, one sack, showed up in the box score, but they were able to get to Newton because the Patriots’ coverage was so tight.
The Patriots will be able to get more creative in their front seven this season, with more blitzes and more advanced pass-rush techniques, because they’ll have time to pressure the quarterback thanks to what should be one of the league’s best secondaries.
It’s still unclear who will starting across from Revis at cornerback or next to Devin McCourty at safety, but it also might not matter. At cornerback, the Patriots have five solid options in Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Malcolm Butler, and safeties Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung have shown solid contributions, especially in the running game.
The Patriots were built to win a Super Bowl in 2013 before injuries ravaged their defense and eventually their offense, as well — and they still went 12-4. If the 2014 Patriots can stay healthy, they look even better than last year’s team.