FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- While there were plenty of players who were fighting for jobs to keep an eye on, this was the preseason cameo we've been awaiting. After sitting out the first two games, Tom Brady finally played in a few meaningful series Thursday night in the Patriots' 10-3 victory against the Carolina Panthers.
There are no other 42-year-old quarterbacks currently earning a paycheck in the NFL. Certainly not ones who have six Super Bowl rings in their jewelry drawer. So any time Brady plays, or gets started on another season, it's an event.
Sure, it was only an exhibition game, but there was a buzz in the air at Gillette Stadium in anticipation of finally seeing Brady guiding the offense, as he warmed up with both Julian Edelman and Demaryius Thomas in tow. Edelman just got off the non-football-injury list with a broken thumb, and Thomas was just removed from the PUP list coming back from a torn Achilles he suffered in December.
Neither receiver played in the game, which was a bit of a letdown. It would have been fun to see Brady reunite with his favorite receiver and see how he fared with the new guy. Rookie first-round pick N'Keal Harry also didn't participate. So Brady took on the Panthers with a bit of a backup cast at wideout.
No matter. The crowd still gave Brady a huge round of applause when he first walked out to the huddle. They believed they would see something worthwhile from No. 12.
And they did. It just took a little while.
The 42-year-old, who had looked sharp during training camp, particularly in the joint practices carving up both the Lions and Titans, wasn't quite as deadly against the Panthers' first-team defense in the early going.
The Panthers do have an excellent front seven that features Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin and Luke Kuechly. And they were difficult to penetrate both on the ground and in the air. But Brady also wasn't on target the first few series. He wasn't shredding them like he did the Titans a week ago in joint practices.
By the third series, however, which crossed into the second quarter, Brady got it going. He led the offense on a 15-play, 85-yard scoring drive that ate up 8:21 on the clock. All in all it was an impressive drive. Brady, naturally, is never satisfied.
"I think there was a lot of good things. There was obviously a lot of things that we need to do to clean up," Brady said after the game, "There were a lot of long-yardage situations, too many penalties. We've gotta get back to work."
On the scoring drive that wound up ending his night, Brady went 4-for-5 for 40 yards. His best pass was an 18-yard bullet to tight end Ryan Izzo to set the Patriots up first-and-goal at the Panthers 8-yard line. Izzo made a nice catch, extending his body, but the ball was perfectly thrown by Brady, a rifle shot between defenders.
"I had some heat on that," Brady said with a smile. "It's nice when you can be decisive, and make a good decisive throw. For me, anticipation and decisiveness are so important. That comes from experience and trust. If guys are in those spots, you feel like you can cut it loose because you have the decisiveness to do that. So that was a good throw. I've got to make a lot of those this year . . . the team expects me to make all the throws that are there. That was a good play. Ryan made a great catch."
Along with extending the drive with his arm, Brady also kept the chains moving with his feet. Yes, he does run on occasion. He deftly scrambled for a 3-yard run on a third-and-three play. Seeing no one open, he took off and gained the necessary yardage before being tackled. He showed off his 40-something speed.
"If I can make one of those a game, I think it'll be good for our team," said Brady. The quarterback believes his runs are potentially back-breakers for opposing teams.
"I think those are important plays. To get a first-down conversion on me scrambling, I'm sure the defensive coordinator is like, 'What the heck?"' said Brady. "'This is not, you know, we've got to stop Edelman, we've got to stop (James) White, we've got to stop the run game, we've got to stop these great players.' And all of a sudden, Brady for a scramble. That's got to piss him off pretty good. So I revel in that."
Well, that one certainly helped the drive, and didn't land Brady on the injured list. So it was worth the trip.
Getting back to his arm, he also hit Ben Watson with a 10-yard completion on a third-and-10. The Pats got 15 additional yards when Eric Reid was flagged for unnecessary roughness after delivering a head blow to Watson, who was already down.
As for the running game, Sony Michel looked good at times, and better than his statistics would indicate, to help the cause. Several of his big gains were called back because of penalties. He had some trouble on the goal line, with James Develin finally getting across from the 1, but still had a fairly positive night, gaining 36 yards on 10 carries. Michel did well enough to set up play-action for Brady, which always will be key going forward.
Brady wound up 8-for-12 for 85 yards playing in three series. Not surprisingly, with a lesser crew, Phillip Dorsett was his favorite target and go-to-guy. Dorsett caught five passes for 41 yards from No. 12.
While offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wasn't going to show his hand and showcase all of his plays, it was important to see with whom Brady might have found a rhythm or felt comfortable throwing the ball. Dorsett clearly was the man.
"Phillip is a guy that I've played a lot of football with and I have a lot of trust in," said Brady. "Experience is a great thing in football if you use it well, and our experience together pays off. I think the great thing about Phil, he takes advantage of his opportunities. A lot of guys have been injured this preseason. Phil plays all three wide receiver positions . . . I love playing with Phil. He's been a great contributor to our team."
Several attempts toward Jakobi Meyers went for incompletions. Brady wasn't happy with the rookie for stopping a route. Meyers had better luck with Jarrett Stidham later in the game, catching 7 passes for 74 yards. Brady said it's been tougher for the rookies, because they haven't been around many veteran receivers who know the ins and outs of the offense.
"I think those guys are working really hard. They've played a lot of football this preseason," said Brady. "They really haven't had any veteran guys out there to show them the way. They've been learning on the fly. But I like the way they competed. We just have to keep working together. We have one more (preseason) game to go."