BALTIMORE -- As far as preseason debuts go, for teams facing the dreaded Super-Bowl losing hangover, the Panthers acquitted themselves quite well.

On the one possession in which the starting offense played, it moved the ball with relative ease -- on the ground and through the air -- receiver Kelvin Benjamin made a nice return from season-long injury and Cam Newton, whom we last saw pouting in a losing press conference, was so hyped for this meaningless contest with the Ravens that he negated a Panthers interception for a score by hopping on the field too early to celebrate.

On what was largely a night for the various characters hoping to cling to the back-end of Carolina's roster to show their stuff, it would be easy to overlook what the core of the team did, but Newton and Co. were in fine form yet again on a sticky night at M&T Bank Stadium.

Playing largely base, vanilla looks -- devoid of the run and pass action that makes this offense, and the reigning NFL MVP so potent -- Carolina moved 68 yards on 14 plays and Newton converted his first five attempts and probably should have landed the sixth as well, with Ted Ginn beating Baltimore's top corner, Jimmy Smith, in the back of the end zone but wasn't in sync with the quarterback. Even despite settling for three points there, it was an indicator that this group will be once again formidable in 2016 -- Carolina is one of the few truly balanced outfits in this league and doesn't just beat you with defense anymore -- and Newton is someone not even yet entering his prime. His upside is immeasurable.

"I was very pleased with what the first unit did coming out with their rhythm," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "We put ourselves in a good position getting down to the red zone with a chance to score."

What this game will most be remembered for by the Panthers (OK, what it will only be remembered for), was the return of Benjamin. The hulking target formed an instant bond with Newton during his rookie season in 2014, then never took the field a year ago due to injury.

Benjamin was used sparingly on the drive but did make one reception -- using his size to box out on an a short out route -- that gave you just the briefest of glimpses into how he could help propel this attack. He has the downfield, big-play ability to further unlock this offense, taking pressure off tight end Greg Olsen, opening up more space for him, and letting Newton and his big arm benefit even more from the confusion he can cause at the line of scrimmage.

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Kelvin Benjamin makes his presence known with a catch against the Ravens. USATSI

The Panthers won't win 15 games this season, again, but they'll be a better team I suspect and Newton's Super Bowl issues will only further fuel him. He's a natural born winner and he works his tail off and it won't be all that long before the Panthers are challenging for a Lombardi Trophy again. I expect them not to lack motivation, and Newton almost never lacks for enthusiasm. Even on a 102-degree night in Baltimore with Panthers' reserve linebackers and defensive backs returning a meaningless interception for a score (called back after Newton's premature on-field celebration).

"I got too excited and the officials called me on it," Newton said. "I was hoping I would get away with just a warning, but we will learn from that and we won't make that kind of mistake again." Rivera on Newton's penalty: "It's a good lesson learned. Like I said, if we're going to do it, do it now, so we can be done with it. We had the referees in [training camp] and explained all the new rules to everybody."

Notes from the Panthers-Ravens preseason game

  • Baltimore is focused on improving its secondary play, and, to the end, had all four starters on the field early on a night when the overwhelming majority of its starters didn't even dress. They need to see Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Smith and Shareece Wright communicating and interacting as much as possible, and overall the defensive backs were so-so at best against Carolina's better players. Newton carved them up and Derek Anderson had his way with them as well at times. This will continue to be a point of emphasis for the Ravens staff.
  • Panthers have virtually no hope of getting a long-term deal done with star defensive tackle Kawann Short. Talks with him went nowhere, the sides never got anywhere and the negotiation is essentially dead at this point. After the bizarre turn of events with Josh Norman this spring -- their franchise player who was released off the tag -- this negotiation will be watched closely within that locker room and around the league. Short is in the final year of his rookie deal and as a second-round pick there is no fifth-year option in play. With the price of defensive tackles soaring lately, another big year from him will only raise his price.
  • Liked what I saw from Panthers second-year receiver Devin Funchess. He used his body and physicality expertly on a 10-yard touchdown catch from Anderson (who threw a beauty of a pass). Anderson is definitely one of the elite backup quarterbacks in the league -- yeah, I said it -- and Funchess opposite of Benjamin could be a big problem for opposing defenses on the outside. "You're seeing the progress," Rivera said of Funchess. "You're seeing what he's going to add to the offense. We saw that at the end of the year last year. Everybody was waiting for him and then in midseason he kind of came into his own and made some things happen. By the end of the season, he got better and stronger and that's what he's doing right now, getting stronger, learning the plays."
  • Ravens loved the burst they saw from rookie running back Kenneth Dixon on a night when returning starter Justin Forsett did not dress. Dixon had powerful runs as soon as he entered the game and veteran Terrance West continued his strong camp with some nice, one-cut downhill runs as well (he really fits that part of this scheme well). West showed power going up in the early inside for an early score and good wheels getting to the sidelines for a second-half touchdown. Buck Allen got into the act as well in the second quarter. This team may be in position to trade a depth running back rather than cut someone. It's an intriguing mix there, especially if Forsett is able to return to form following injury. "Our backs were dynamic," coach John Harbaugh said. "We have Terrance West in here, he was dynamic. Made some runs -- he made a really good run early and made three or four guys miss and created some yards on his own. Really, all of the backs that played, played well."
  • Joe Flacco did not dress but he was moving very well before the game, and doing so even without his knee brace on after his season-ending knee surgery. He is having an excellent camp and is eager to get in at some point this month. "I think I'll be out there in the third game, but I'm not playing the first two," he told me before the game. Steve Smith is nearing closer to a return from the PUP list as well.
  • The Ravens put Michael Phelps -- a native of Towson, just over the Baltimore City line and a massive Ravens fan -- up on the scoreboard here Thursday when he was going for his 22nd gold medal during a stoppage in play. Phelps is close to several players on the team and was on the sidelines for the Ravens' last Super Bowl win down in New Orleans. Suffice to say, the crowd was more fired up for that than it was for much of this game. Both sidelines watched in awe as Phelps came from behind to win going away. "You won't see too many athletes who would stop playing their game to watch another athlete compete," Newton said. "That just shows how highly everyone thinks of Michael Phelps. It is unbelievable for him to be such a phenomenon for so long. As an athlete, I think it is awesome to see his discipline. He has done the same things for so long and he never gets bored, he never lets up. He is an amazing athlete and an amazing citizen. It was really cool to watch his race tonight. I have so much respect for him."
  • Want an indication of just how few Ravens regulars dressed for this game (due to injury or as a precaution)? The team captains were Weddle, who just signed here this offseason, punter Sam Koch and back-up quarterback Ryan Mallett.
  • Saw some very nice flashes from Ravens rookie outside linebacker Matthew Judon. The Grand Valley State product got into the backfield several times, shed some blockers and had a nose for the ball. For a team desperate for possible disruptors (Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are aging and both still on PUP), that was a positive sign. Starting rush end Za'Darius Smith had a big early sack that caused a fumble and Baltimore will continue to give guys like them a ton of reps in the preseason games. "I just have to go out there and prove that I belong in this league and show people what I can do," Judon said. "I went to a small school. It happens. But we've got a lot of great guys, just look at Brandon Williams from a small school and he's a great NFL athlete."
  • Two recent high Ravens draft picks -- linebacker Arthur Brown and safety Matt Elam -- still look in distinct jeopardy to me of not getting past the cutdown to 75 players.
  • Ravens have a lot to sort out in their return game. No one exactly grabbing hold of those jobs and the incumbent, receiver Michael Campanaro, has been hurt for much of his career and is nursing injury again.
  • Glad to see the Ravens go back to a natural grass surface, especially noticeable on the field on a scorcher like this (heaven knows what the temperature would have been down on the FieldTurf). The team hopes it helps curb some of the ACL/Achilles woes they suffered a year ago. I like the unpainted end zones, personally, though I'm not sure they're going to look that way when the regular season starts.