FOXBORO - It's dress rehearsal time, or at least so the public is led to believe at this time of year.
The Patriots visit Ford Field in Detroit tonight (7:30 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12) to play the Lions in the third preseason game, which has evolved over the last 15 years or so into the most important exhibition on the schedule - the game supposedly game-planned and staffed most like a regular-season game would be.
Well, maybe that's so and maybe it isn't. There are always variations on the theme, and as Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said earlier in the week, there hasn't been a lot of time for him to game-plan specifically for what the Lions (1-1 in the preseason) do.
Oh, they'll be aware of the offensive threat that Calvin Johnson poses (if he plays, and that was not certain as of Wednesday), or the need to keep Ndamukong Suh outside of the same area code as Tom Brady's knees. The basics will be in the game plan no matter how short a turnaround it was since the last game.
But tonight's game is more of a chance to see that the engine is running properly than it is for the fine tuning. The screws can be tightened and the trim lined up correctly on the quarterpanels in plenty of time before the 2013 Patriots go to the showroom in Buffalo on Sept. 8.
"I think there's still a lot to be said for playing a game prior to the start of the regular season where the players play, come in at halftime, go back out and play again if that's possible," Belichick said on Tuesday. "I don't think it's like an absolute must, but I think it's a good experience if they can experience it. We'll see how it goes."
What that means is that Brady will probably see 21/2 quarters behind center, maybe three full ones, before giving way to at least one of his two backups - most likely Ryan Mallett, for whom the game snaps are far more important in his role as backup that it would be for that time to go to fading challenger Tim Tebow.
Brady will likely be without a player that seemed to emerge as his favorite target last week. Danny Amendola and Brady developed some chemistry in the win over the Bucs, but since then, the newcomer from St. Louis apparently suffered a
mysterious and undisclosed injury and missed two days of practice.
The offshoot is likely to be increased opportunity for unheralded rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, who can further prove if he's the real deal and not just a training-camp fluke.
Evaluation in game conditions is important, Belichick said, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
"(The preseason games) are an important part of the evaluation and if it's a good evaluation, it might be the most important," he said. "If it's a good evaluation, then it might be the most important thing. I'm just telling you that just because you put a guy out there in a preseason game doesn't mean you're getting a great evaluation. He may not be competing against somebody that's relevant or what they're doing may not really be indicative of what his skills are or aren't. I just couldn't make a blanket statement like that."
Not surprisingly, Brady agreed with his coach in regard to the relative importance of the preseason schedule.
"Last week was important, this week is important because it is the week we have," he said. "Nothing's going to simulate what happens on opening day. That has a different feeling than any of these games; that's just the way it is. But this is an important game because it's an important step in our process to see where we're at as a team.
"We're going on the road, tough environment," he said. "We went there a few years ago and didn't do very well, which we've already heard about that for three days now, so we're going to have to do better than we did the last time."
What Belichick hopes entering tonight's game is that the players know where they stand, through their practice evaluations and consultations with the staff, and play accordingly.
"We try to tell the players and I try to tell the team and a lot of times individual, specific players where they're at, what they need to do, what's important in their situation, their role, try to explain that to them," he said. "How they actually look at it, I couldn't tell you how each guy sees that."
Among the issues yet to be resolved entering tonight's game is the rotation of running backs after Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, particularly the battle between LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden; the status of tight end Daniel Fells on the roster, who has lost ground to rookie Zach Sudfeld; and the ongoing concern over depth along the offensive line as Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon continue to be absent, forcing tackle Will Svitek to fill in at right guard.
Defensively, Devin McCourty's likely return to action at safety will help bring that position group into sharper focus. Meanwhile, Kyle Arrington is likely to get the start across from Aqib Talib at cornerback, with some interest in how soon rookie Logan Ryan (who had a pick-six against Tampa Bay) will be rotated into the mix.
The punting battle between popular veteran Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen has also yet to be resolved. Allen appeared to lose ground with poor kicks in the game against the Bucs, but Belichick maintains that the tussle remains very competitive.