Maybe the Carolina Panthers, as their fans hope and their players expect, will make the playoffs in their second season. Maybe the sloppy play they showed in Saturday night's 40-28 NFL exhibiton loss to the Denver Broncos was only an aberration.
Yet a clear message emerged from the game: Carolina is better than it was last season, especially on offense, but the Panthers aren't nearly talented enough to overcome mistakes.
Kerry Collins threw an interception on the first play and escaped damage.
He threw a second interception later after Dino Philyaw bobbled a good throw, and Denver scored a touchdown.
Denver blocked a punt and scored a touchdown.
Collins threw a third interception, and Denver kicked a field goal.
Tony Smith fumbled a kickoff, and Denver kicked another field goal.
By halftime, the Broncos had racked up 27 points, and 17 had come off turnovers.
"When you turn the ball over like that, you don't give yourself a chance to win," Collins said. "We were just shooting ourselves in the foot. It wasn't anything they were doing. We were hurting ourselves."
Carolina continued to do that throughout the game. The Broncos intercepted four Panthers passes and recovered one fumble.
"We had five turnovers and ended up with 20 points on the board," Coach Dom Capers said. "That's hard to overcome.
"Those are the things we believe we have to do to win. Tonight was a great example where it went against us. We were on the wrong end of the takeaway-giveaway. It's hard to overcome."
Collins had a sporadic day. He threw a soft pass over the middle that Mark Carrier caught on his fingertips and turned into a 33-yard gain. He drilled a slant pass to Muhsin Muhammad for a 5-yard touchdown. And at least two passes were bobbled, one of which became an interception.
Overall, Collins completed eight of 21 throws. But the three interceptions were devastating.
"I'm still young. I'm still learning," said Collins, in his second NFL season. "The most important thing is when things happen like that is you realize what you did and why you made mistakes."
Carolina was sporadic running the ball, too. The Panthers started Philyaw at halfback to give him some work with the first unit, and he netted only 21 yards on 10 tries. Marquette Smith had a more impressive day as he rushed for 57 yards on nine attempts.
It was the reverse of last week, where Marquette Smith started against Chicago and gained only 8 yards on six tries and Philyaw erupted in the second half for nine carries and 84 yards. Tony Smith may be fading in the race for the starting job. He fumbled a kickoff and was yanked from the kickoff team after that. He spent some time at halfback but did not have a carry in the game.
"We didn't get much going in terms of the running game," Capers said. "And they were running the ball well against our defense."
Denver was effective running and passing as it surged for 407 yards of total offense. A total of 239 of those yards came in the second half when both teams were playing backups.
Denver did score two touchdowns on Carolina's first-team defense.
"I have a hard time pointing to any area of our football team that performed up to the standard we would like to perform in in the first half," Capers said.