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What we learned: Tom Brady outshines Garoppolo

After failing to lead a scoring drive in six possessions Friday night versus the Panthers, interim quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo can take solace in the notion that Patriots coach Bill Belichick puts little stock in the idea of the third preseason game as a "dress rehearsal" for the season opener.

Garoppolo got off to a slow start for the third consecutive game, managing a first down on just one of his first four possessions.

When suspended starter Tom Brady came on in relief to make his 2016 preseason debut late in the first quarter, the difference in effectiveness between the two quarterbacks was immediately apparent.

Brady's first pass led Aaron Dobson perfectly for a 37-yard catch-and-run. His second completion was a beautiful 33-yard drop-in-the-bucket for a touchdown to Chris Hogan.

While Brady has developed a late-career reputation for inefficiency on downfield passes, his willingness to pull the trigger stood in stark contrast to Garoppolo's reluctance to throw past the sticks.

If you're scoring at home, Garoppolo's lone pass of 25 or more yards on 54 August attempts is a 56-yard screen pass that traveled just a few yards in the air. Brady's first two completions combined for 70 yards.

It's notoriously difficult to judge quarterback play in the preseason, as defenses rarely scheme for a specific opponent and offenses save their gameplans for the genuine article.

In the case of Garoppolo, that puzzle is even more confounding without the presence of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola -- three of the top four weapons in his aerial attack.

With Brady at the helm, the Patriots averaged 2.42 points per drive last season -- the fourth-highest mark in the league. What should we make of Garoppolo's 1.61 points per drive this preseason -- a figure that would have ranked better than just five teams in 2015?

As the surrogate quarterback for the first month of the season, Garoppolo won't be asked to carry the team in Brady-like fashion -- just as Brady succeeded as a system quarterback charged with managing the game early in his own legendary career.

Garoppolo shouldn't be asked to pull off a convincing impression of Brady, a bipedal quarterbacking clinic. It's no wonder that Belichick mumbled in disdain when queried about the mind-numbing, pie-in-the-sky hypothetical of Garoppolo turning Brady into an afterthought by Week 5.

Here's what else we learned in Friday's action:

  1. With Matt Jones out for the preseason and backup Chris Thompson sitting out for precautionary reasons, the Redskins could not afford to lose another running back. The preseason gods, however, had different plans. Keith Marshall sprained his left elbow on an awkward fall on his first carry in the first quarter and did not return. Marshall was going to split carries with fellow backup Robert Kelley, who ran strong up the middle, finished with 51 yards on 12 carries. Washington's tailback situation remains a lingering concern going into the regular season.
  1. Kirk Cousins started slow in his second preseason start, tossing an interception into tight coverage on Washington's first drive. However, the Redskins' franchise-tagged quarterback finished strong despite his butter-fingered wideouts. Cousins threw three touchdowns in the second quarter and finished with 188 yards on 23 attempts. Forget for a moment that he was picking at Buffalo second- and third-string defensive backs, and feel encouraged, Washington fans. Cousins' prove-it season is off to a solid start.
  1. Before the game, the injury- and suspension-riddled Bills announced that they would sit most of their starting defense -- Ronald Darby, Nickell Robey, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes -- and Tyrod Taylor's top two targets last week, LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay. Coach Rex Ryan also quickly pulled his remaining stars as Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins played just two series. Taylor finished 2-for-5 for 11 yards, targeting Watkins just once.

Ryan said after the game, "I feel good about the guys we sat. I didn't want to risk them getting injured. They'll be ready when it counts." For the Bills' blustery coach, treating the third preseason game like the fourth is unlike him, but Buffalo's offseason has proven so wild that it has turned Ryan into a worrywart.

  1. Sports psychologists: who needs 'em?! Much-maligned Buccaneers rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo was perfect Friday, going 6-for-6 on three extra points and three field goals (48, 27, 21). Hopefully, the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area can breathe a little easier and we can put this overblown storyline to bed.
  1. Reports of Jameis Winston's sophomore slump have been greatly exaggerated. The Buccaneers gunslinger (16/25, 259 yards, 2 TDs) ripped Cleveland's sad, overmatched secondary to shreds, threading back-shoulder needles to Vincent Jackson, throwing darts to Mike Evans and juking Browns defenders outside the pocket. Winston's pocket awareness and ensuing evasiveness were on full display on his first touchdown pass on the night, during which he rolled out right and cut back inside to avoid pressure and toss an easy score to Charles Sims. Tampa Bay's Jameis-Evans battery will be a sight to behold this season.

Inversely, the Browns' defense resembled a rusty sieve, which made the following all the more promising...

  1. Josh Gordonis back in a major way. The Browns receiver embarrassed Tampa Bay's secondary in the first half, hauling in two Robert Griffin III bombs over and past veteran cornerback Brent Grimes. He was the third receiver alongside starter Terrelle Pryor and rookie Corey Coleman, who made his first appearance this preseason. Coleman's first reception came on a nine-yard tunnel screen, but was negated by a pass interference call on Pryor. (One step forward...)

With a full receiving arsenal in tow, the Browns' offense gave us a preview of what we should expect come Week 5: deep balls on every other play, inconsistent gains on the ground from Isaiah Crowell and hilarious RGIII two-footed slides.

  1. The Bucs' defense had eight -- count 'em, eight -- sacks of Browns quarterbacks. Jacquies Smith boasted two, while Kwon Alexander and rookie Noah Spence stood out up front with one each.
  1. As is the case almost every August, fantasy owners are still trying to figure out the pecking order in the Patriots' backfield. Just when LeGarrette Blount appeared to be locked in as the early-down, between-the-tackles hammer, Tyler Gaffney drew the start and played the first two series. Although Gaffney showed better awareness of the hole this week, he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry compared to Blount's 5.2. We remain convinced that Blount is the superior runner -- by a wide margin.
  1. The recent success of Michael Bennett and Malik Jackson has NFL teams experimenting with their own hybrid defensive linemen capable of slipping between end and tackle. New England might have a version of their own in disruptive 2015 fourth-round draft pick Trey Flowers, who took the quarterback down for the third straight week.
  1. To the surprise of no one, the connection between Cam Newton and Kelvin Benjamin remains a work in progress after the monstrous wideout missed the entirety of the 2015 season. Benjamin's first four targets resulted in an overthrow, a miscommunication, an offensive pass interference penalty and an interception. Benjamin played more snaps than expected, hauling in three of six official targets for 27 yards.
  1. So much for the early-camp Sammie Coates hype. The Steelers' first-team offense made its 2016 preseason debut versus the Saints, with Eli Rogers manning the slot between Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. Rogers and tight end Jesse James were targeted three times apiece on the opening drive, as a surgical Ben Roethlisberger carved up New Orleans' defense.
  1. A rejuvenated C.J. Spiller saw time with the first-team offense for the second week in a row. The Saints clearly want to highlight Spiller in the passing game now that he has rediscovered his game-changing lateral agility after a knee injury sabotaged his 2015 New Orleans debut campaign.
  1. Recommended by Bill Parcells, pint-sized Northern Illinois undrafted rookie Tommylee Lewis continues to make a strong push for a roster spot at wide receiver and kick returner. Look for coach Sean Payton to take advantage of Lewis' elusiveness on jet sweeps, bubble screens, deep balls and the occasional gadget play.
  1. All quiet on the Niners quarterback front. After dealing with arm soreness, Colin Kaepernick failed to wrestle the starting position away from a mediocre Blaine Gabbert, proving to be the poorer thrower and runner on the night. Kap and Gabbert both threw for 14 yards and ran for less than 20 yards in one quarter of play each. Kaepernick's inability to impress in his return from injury almost surely secures the starting QB position for Gabbert, unless he undergoes some magical transformation in the formality that is the fourth preseason game.
  1. We caught our first glimpse of Aaron Rodgers, and it was business as usual for the Packers star. Evading lax 49ers pressure in midseason form, Rodgers finished 6-for-9 for 60 yards with a touchdown toss to his returning target Randall Cobb. The quarterback's connection with new tight end Jared Cook, who caught one ball from Rodgers on two targets for 19 yards, will be one of the more anticipated developments on Green Bay's offense this year. Also, Eddie Lacy continued to look like his 2014 self, breaking off an exciting 21-yard sideline run in the first quarter.
  1. Whoever ends up taking the bulk of snaps under center in San Francisco, he won't have many skill players to target. The 49ers lost wide receiver Bruce Ellington to a hamstring injury, adding yet another pass catcher to San Francisco's crowded injury room (Eric Rogers, DeAndre Smelter, Bryce Treggs).
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