FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The shadow that hangs over New England Patriots fill-in starter Jimmy Garoppolo got bigger and darker in New England's 19-17 victory over Carolina in the third week of preseason action.
While the third-year backup remains the preparation "priority," as Bill Belichick describes it in New England, Tom Brady made his summer debut in four series of action against the reigning NFC champion Panthers.
Garoppolo got the starting nod, and after Brady replaced him for those four series, Garoppolo then played into the third quarter. Brady's debut saw him come off the bench to lead the Patriots to a pair of first-half scoring drives, including a pretty 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan.
Meanwhile, Garoppolo failed to find the end zone -- his only touchdown this summer coming in a two-minute drill against the Bears' backups a week earlier -- and looked rattled in the face of the Panthers pressure defense. Though the New England first-string passing attack has been without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola and gotten only limited work from Julian Edelman, the unit has not done much under Garoppolo's watch through the first three weeks of August action.
"Ups and downs," Garoppolo said in his postgame press conference in Carolina. "Just little things here and there that we need to get corrected. We'll take care of it. We'll do our best to get there. We've got two weeks 'til (the opener). We'll work our tails off to get to that point. We'll get there."
Heading into the Panthers game Garoppolo had said the matchup was close to the opening night environment he will face in Arizona, and he didn't fare as well as anyone might have hoped.
Beyond Brady's scoring drives -- No. 12's numbers weren't actually that impressive as he finished completing just three of nine passes for 76 yards -- Garoppolo also watched third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett cruise against Carolina's second- and third-string players. The third-round pick completed all nine of his passes for 85 yards with a touchdown for a game-best 143.1 rating. Brady had an impressive 102.1 rating. And Garoppolo was a far less impressive 67.9 mark.
But it's Garoppolo who will be starting Sept. 11 in Arizona with Brady banished to a month off.
It's a strange situation for all involved, as Garoppolo acknowledged last week.
It means next Thursday night's preseason finale in New York against the Giants may have a different feel. Garoppolo could need a few more reps to build a semblance of positive momentum heading into his first career start.
"We want to get Jimmy ready for the Arizona game. Tom isn't going to be playing for a while so it's kind of his last chance to play until he comes back after a few weeks. Jacoby certainly could use all the playing time that he can get," Belichick said looking ahead. "I think that whichever players we play will benefit from it and it will be valuable to them. We could play all three quarterbacks a lot next week and they'd all benefit from that and it would all be good, but we can't.
"What Jimmy's role is in a couple weeks is going to be a lot different than what Tom's is, and it's going to be a lot different than what Jacoby's is. At some point later on, those roles are going to change again. So again, there's no perfect solution to it. We'll just do the best we can to try to have our individual players and our team as well prepared as possible at whatever point that is that we have to deal with, and whenever those situations come up."
Right now, the man who most needs to be ready doesn't quite look the part. Garoppolo was the third-best Patriots passer against the Panthers and that's certainly less than ideal with the regular season growing closer by the minute.
--DT Terrance Knighton didn't play a defensive snap in the third preseason game in Carolina. The veteran free-agent addition would appear to be very much in a battle for a roster spot in New England. Knighton started all 15 games he played in last fall in Washington, but at this point his role with the Patriots appears to be tenuous at best. "It's disappointing," Knighton acknowledged in Carolina.
"I'm not going to make too much of it... Everybody wants to play. I didn't get a chance to. That's the decision they made."
With cuts down to 75 and then 53 on the horizon, the veteran is well aware of the reality of his situation on a team that has other defensive tackles such as former first-round pick Malcom Brown, veteran Alan Branch and surprise free agent addition Markus Kuhn.
"Whatever happens, happens. If I'm here, I'm here, if I'm not, just... take it one day at a time," Knighton declared.
--CB Cyrus Jones, New England's top pick in last April's draft, has made impressive strides over the course of the summer. Though the second-round pick out of Alabama struggled mightily with muffed punts on seemingly a daily basis for stretches of training camp, his game work in the role has been very productive.
That continued with a 60-yard punt return and 28.3-yard average on three chances in the third week of preseason action in Carolina.
Not only does it look like Jones could win the top punt-return job for the Patriots as a rookie, but he appears to have a solid hold on the team's No. 3 cornerback spot after action working alongside returning starters Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan against the Panthers.
He certainly looks like he could take the lead role as punt returner, a job that's been held by Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (PUP) in recent years.
"Yeah, I think that's a consideration," Bill Belichick acknowledged. "Obviously, Danny and Julian have a lot of experience returning punts for us as well as kickoffs in the past. We'll see how it goes, but we have good depth at that position and that's always a good thing to have. We have confidence in all of those guys back there. Last night we even had D.J. (Foster) who got a chance to handle the ball. We'll see how it goes going forward, but I think we have good competition and good depth at that position."
--LB Jonathan Freeny reportedly signed a two-year extension with the Patriots Aug. 27. The veteran joined New England as a free agent in 2015 and though primarily a special teamer in his first three NFL seasons in Miami, he went on to start seven of the 13 games he played for the Patriots last fall.
Freeny certainly has endeared himself to the organization in his short time in Foxborough.
"Jonathan is a very dependable player; he is able to do a lot of different roles for us," Bill Belichick said. "He can play inside and outside on the line of scrimmage and off the ball defensively. He's been very valuable for us in the kicking game, obviously with some size. A four-phase special teams player and one of our overall top workers in terms of the offseason program, preparation, training; he always does things right. He works hard, doesn't say a lot, but is very dependable and consistent. I think all of the other players - everybody in the organization looks up to him."