By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Yes, it’s preseason. It’s preseason. It’s preseason. It’s preseason.

I understand.

It’s the preseason.

However — HOWEVERRRRR — it would be impossible to look at the Patriots’ defense through three weeks without anticipating some very, very big things from the brainchild of two Belichicks and a Mayo.

The most recent display of this defense’s ability came Thursday night, when the Patriots held the Panthers to just 99 total yards of offense. That came on 51 rushing yards and just 48 passing yards, and it was aided by four sacks that cost the Panthers 48 yards.

The Panthers’ trio of quarterbacks collectively went 11-for-20 for 90 yards. Carolina’s leading rusher had 24 yards on 10 carries.

That stifling defense has been consistent throughout the summer.

New England held the Lions to just 93 total offensive yards in Week 1 of the preseason, a week when the defense racked up nine acks.

Last week in Tennessee, the Patriots did allow the Titans to gain 306 yards, but they also limited Tennessee to just 15 offensive points.

In total, the Patriots have allowed just 166 yards per game and a ridiculous 7.7 points per game. They’ve allowed their three opponents to pick up just 11.7 first downs per game, bolstered by a third-down defense that’s been effective on 76 percent of its snaps.

The Patriots’ defense also has 15 sacks in the three games, and opponents have a combined passer rating of 71.8.

Again — again, again, again, I know — it’s the preseason. So most of those numbers are silly. There won’t be any stretch of the real season when the Patriots’ defense sees David Fales, Logan Woodside and Kyle Allen at quarterback over the course of three weeks. Allowing 7.7 points per game can’t happen in the regular season. Obviously.

But.

The consistency and depth is what has stood out the most through 180 minutes of football. The secondary remains a strength, and Joejuan Williams has handled himself rather well in his first summer in the league. Up front, Michael Bennett impressed in his debut Thursday, bullying his way to the backfield for a sack. Jamie Collins looks rejuvenated. Chase Winovich appears to be a welcome injection of life off the edge. Byron Cowart has shown up early the last two weeks. Ja’Whaun Bentley is back, strengthening a linebacking corps led by Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. Elandon Roberts appears to be in a position where he can be used to his strengths.

And the coaching, which was a question mark all offseason, appears to be in good hands with Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick — with, of course, a little bit of oversight from the big boss man.

A year ago, the Patriots ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed and 21st in yards allowed. It’s only the preseason — YES, IT’S ONLY THE PRESEASON — but it nevertheless feels safe to expect some big jumps in both categories in the coming year.

Now, even though you might not think a 10-3 preseason game with 7 million penalties would not lend itself to leftover thoughts … we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway.

–Ron Rivera twice threw a challenge flag because he thought the Patriots committed pass interference. Twice, he was a loser. (No offense, Ron. Just talking in terms of strict, dictionary definitions here.)

While the first one was a complete waste of everyone’s time (on account of there not being any pass interference committed), the second one was interesting. It came early in the fourth quarter, when Will Grier looked for Jaydon Mickens up the right seam in the end zone. J.C. Jackson was in coverage, and his play on Mickens after the ball had been thrown appeared to have been clean. Surely, there was not enough contact after the ball had been thrown to warrant any penalty for pass interference.

However, a quick look at the replay showed Jackson clearly tugging Mickens’ jersey when the receiver was running his route past the cornerback.

J.C. Jackson (Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

J.C. Jackson (Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Now, in this instance, that minor jersey tug probably doesn’t warrant much mention. Yet I am interested to see how this might play out in a more egregious case of defensive holding and/or illegal contact downfield. That is to say — pass interference can be assessed after the fact via replay, but can defensive holding? Can illegal contact? Based on the way the rule has been explained, it appears only pass interference can be assessed on replay, so if the illegal contact took place before the quarterback released the pass, then it appears as though the aggrieved team is out of luck.

For example, one case of obvious interference that’s been discussed locally for years now was the cleanout of Chris Hogan on the final play of Super Bowl LII:

Let’s say that same level of contact takes place on a receiver just 1 second before the quarterback releases a pass, leading to an incompletion, or maybe an interception, or maybe even a pick-six. The contact could be clear and blatant and obvious, and the officials on the field might have missed it, but the current system (designed and implemented to prevent disasters from happening) could do nothing to fix it.

Seems like a minor flaw in this system.

–Tom Brady is 42 (perhaps you’ve heard) but you’d never know it based on that heeeeeeater he threw to Ryan Izzo, a completion which set up the lone touchdown of the entire game.

Tom Brady, Ryan Izzo (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

As Scott Zolak said immediately on the broadcast, “SEXY throw right there.”

(Zo also made a guttural moan as the ball was being thrown, but it’s difficult to quote that one with precision.)

“I had a little heat,” a smiling Brady in a big ol’ hat said after the game. “I had a little heat on that.”

Cue the noodle arm/fettuccine takes, baby. Cue ’em up.

–You don’t hear too, too much about Byron Cowart these days. But his plays on the opening drives in consecutive weeks make him impossible to ignore.

Last week, Cowart sacked Marcus Mariota on the second play of the game. On Thursday, Cowart stuffed Christian McCaffrey at the line of scrimmage on the second play of the game.

You have to wonder if Cowart might have done more this spring and summer to impress the Patriots than free-agent signee Mike Pennel, who was expected to kind of own that interior spot.

Cowart was a fifth-round pick out of Maryland (by way of Auburn) this past spring, in case you’ve lost track.

–It was probably a very positive sign for Chase Winovich that he started the game with the first team. Granted, he didn’t accomplish much, but merely being out there with the ones looked like a sign that Winovich’s hustle and playmaking ability thus far is going to be rewarded.

Great hair, too.

Chase Winovich (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

–Brian Hoyer didn’t play, and though Belichick shrugged it off after the game by indicating the team knows what it has with Hoyer, I believe Hoyer’s face throughout the entire game spoke a lot louder. Granted, nobody’s an expert in translating the meaning behind faces that aren’t speaking, but I think Hoyer’s blank stare was saying, “Oh, crap, come on, now I have to move, AGAIN, and I have to find somewhere else in this country to work, AGAIN, and I have to make nice with another quarterback, AGAIN, and I have to get another coach to like me, AGAIN. (Internal screaming.)”

Brian Hoyer (Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Again, not a 100 percent clean translation. But I think it’s fairly accurate.

–Jarrett Stidham does look mostly fine, by the way. He doesn’t look like the heir to Tom Brady’s throne right now or anything, but he looks better than could have been reasonably expected. I would lean toward the rookie getting the lone backup job this fall.

–Pip Dorsett is a magnet for the football. People forget this. They shouldn’t.

Given the way the receiver position is shaking out, I can’t sit here and guarantee that Dorsett will make the team. But he appeared to be the only person capable of catching Brady’s passes in this game, and he finished with seven catches for 47 yards.

People do seem to forget that from Week 5 until the end of the regular season last year, Dorsett was targeted with 16 passes. He caught all 16 of them. He then caught four of five targets vs. the Chargers and one of three targets vs. the Chiefs, with that one reception being a 29-yard touchdown.

In total, he’s caught 44 of the 60 passes thrown his way since joining the Patriots, a tick under 75 percent.

“Phillip is a guy that I’ve played a lot of football with, and I have a lot of trust in – experience is a great thing in football if you use it well, and I think our experience together pays off,” Brady said of Dorsett. “I read his body language. 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, remembers all the coaching points from all the times we’ve talked about certain things. Even though he may not have done it, he goes in there and does it the way that Coach wants it done. I love playing with Phil. He’s been a great contributor to our team, and he had a great night.”

This completion, on a second-and-28, was pretty great.

Phillip Dorsett (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

–Just as a point of clarification: A lot of people have complained that the Super Bowl was a boring game. Those people are wrong. If they want to see a boring football game, please roll the tape on this game. This is what a boring game looks like.

READ: Jakobi Meyers-Tom Brady Connection Not Quite Functional In First Game Action

Oh, and a special thanks to referee Carl Cheffers and his crew for making this game particularly excruciating. The officials huddle in the final minutes to figure out some penalty was truly a master stroke. Only a pro’s pro could pull that off.

–Apropos of nothing, I feel bad for preseason running backs. Like, Nick Brossette. The kid has 45 carries this summer for 138 yards. It’s a 3.1-yard average. His longest run was a whopping 12 yards. That’s 45 plays where he’s just run into walls of huge men. And what’s the reward, really? He’s obviously not making the team over Michel/White/Harris/Burkhead/Bolden. Just seems like a lot of pain to endure to chase a dream that’s not even really being promised to him.

Anyways, thus concludes Sympathy Hour. Playing football for a living, even for a short while, seems fun.

–Am I the only one who saw this play …

Tom Brady (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

… and immediately thought to this infamous play?

Tom Brady in Kansas City in 2014 (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Yeah? No?

Ah, well.

In any event. The guy who didn’t run in a game that actually counted was a spry 37 years old. The guy who did run in the game that didn’t matter is a cool 42 years old.

–Speaking of which. Here is a photo of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., warming up to get ready to play a football game in August of 2019.

Tom Brady warms up before the Patriots-Panthers preseason game. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

What a world.

You know, it’s been covered six ways from Sunday that Tom Brady is 42 years old. It’s definitely been mentioned on the news once or twice. Still, when you really think about it … it’s completely bananas.

Personally, I think about how a guy was drafted at 22 years old when I was finishing up eighth grade … and yet is still playing in the NFL now that I am a crusty old man who’s had back surgery and has kids and a mortgage and only cares about one simple thing in this world and that is obviously keeping the lawn green and alive. He’s been an NFL quarterback that entire time.

Everyone’s got their own perspective on it, and it is a rather simple concept — duh — but it’s still crazy. Bananas, even.

Some day, Tom Brady is going to stop playing professional football. When that day comes, we will all be stunned to discover just how old we’ve all gotten.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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