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Patriots 17, Panthers 16

Patriots’ defense leads way against Panthers

Panthers QB Cam Newton dodged a tackle by James Morris (59) but couldn’t escape Chandler Jones (95), who got the sack.Mike McCarn/Associated Press
Patriots17
Panthers16

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While New England panicked watching the starting offense Friday night, a silver lining was forming over Bank of America Stadium — the play of the big, beefy guys on the other side of the ball.

Perhaps sparked by the return of linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Patriots defense was outstanding throughout the first half, repeatedly stymieing Cam Newton and the rest of the Carolina starters in a 17-16 win in the third exhibition game of the season.

After a mostly dismal first half, Tom Brady finally put together a Tom Brady-like drive, running the two-minute offense to perfection and moving the Patriots 80 yards on seven plays in 1:23. He capped the march by hitting tight end Scott Chandler with an 18-yard fade in the corner of the end zone, enabling New England to take a 7-6 lead at the half.

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It was the lone bright spot for the first-teamers. Brady finished the half (and his night) by completing 7 of 13 passes for 84 yards with a TD and a pair of interceptions — only one of which was his fault.

On the not-so-bright side, he led the Patriots with 18 rushing yards on a pair of carries — neither of which was by design — in the first half.

The Panthers, who had to settle for a pair of Graham Gano field goals in the first half, took a 16-7 lead into the fourth quarter.

For the second straight week, however, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (he played the entire second half) led the Patriots back, hitting emerging threat Dion Lewis on a 9-yard TD reception and then leading another drive that was capped by Stephen Gostkowski’s booming 53-yard field goal with 6:14 left for the winning points.

But it was the first-team defense that was the story.

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Mayo, who has had his last two seasons cut short by injury and was held out of the first two preseason contests, announced he was fit with a pair of thunderous tackles on the Panthers’ initial drive.

On third and 1 at the Patriots 39-yard line, Mayo met Carolina tailback Jonathan Stewart in an inside gap and stopped him for no gain.

Apparently the longtime Patriots captain didn’t leave enough of an impression on that stop because the hosts decided to try it again. Bad idea. Mayo again stepped up and into the hole and dropped Stewart for no gain.

“I think they thought they could run the same thing and be successful and it didn’t happen that way,’’ said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who said there’s a different feel when Mayo is in the game. “Great to have him back. Played with him a very long time and it’s great to see him out there flying around again. It definitely helps everyone else. He’s a great communicator and I’m happy that’s he’s out there yelling calls at me.’’

After the Panthers steered clear of Mayo on their second series (Newton went 0 for 3), he came up with two more tackles on the third set of downs.

Though Mayo’s night was done, he had set the tone, with the help of some of his friends up front.

The rotation of veteran interior linemen Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch along with the infusion of enthusiastic young gap-stuffers Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown allowed Mayo, Jamie Collins, and Dont’a Hightower (also seeing his first preseason action) to attack the ball in the first half.

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Newton, who finished 17 of 28 for 160 yards, was sacked twice (Easley and Chandler Jones).

Even in the second half, the meaty men up front — Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson joined the mix — were getting a good push, evidenced by linebacker James Morris’s team-high seven tackles.

Mayo’s impact wasn’t lost on the guys who play behind him, either.

“He means a lot. He’s the key to the defense,’’ said cornerback Malcolm Butler. “He was leading with a different energy tonight . . . So I was glad that he got back, glad he is healthy, glad he was able to get back out there. I am excited to have Mayo back in the hole.’’

It’s highly unlikely Mayo, or any of the other veteran starters, will play in the exhibition finale against the Giants (even a cameo would be a surprise) but it’s clear from his work Friday night, he’s ready for the real games to begin.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.