EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Welcome to the New Jersey Meadowlands, home of MetLife Stadium - or as it could be known tonight, the "Last Chance Saloon" for more than 40 men hoping to become NFL players.
The New England Patriots and New York Giants, combatants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, won't be recognizable as either of those teams as they meet tonight in the final game of the 2012 preseason schedule (7 p.m.; Ch. 4, 64). You may see a smattering of regulars in the game depending upon how much work coaches Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin believe they need, but this is the game for the guys on the bottom of the depth chart - the rookies and free agents that have toiled behind the regulars in training camp and in the three previous preseason games, and have maybe two or three quarters of playing time left to prove whether they're worthy of consideration for an NFL roster spot, or if it's time to consider another line of work.
For Belichick, it's been an unusually compressed workload over the past few weeks. The Patriots will have squeezed three games into 10 days, practiced with another team on two of those, cut or re-assigned several players on Monday and somehow has had to craft a game plan for the Giants tonight that will give the players a reasonable chance to prove that they belong.
"We really just want to try to focus on all the things we need to improve in for the Patriots and not worry too much about anybody else right now," Belichick said Monday. "(We're) just making sure that we're making progress in the direction that we need to go."
He said earlier in the week that his playing-time plans were fluid, and understandably so. But the needs of his team fall into two distinctive groups: Players who need to prove themselves, and players that have already proven themselves, but need the work.
Daniel Fells falls into the latter category.
The big tight end, picked up in free agency during the offseason, hasn't played much in the preseason because of injury. The Patriots know what they need from him - he's likely to be the tight end that stays close to left tackle Nate Solder to help fend off speed rushers coming from the ends, and not playing the passing-target roles of Rob Gronkowski or the newly-enriched Aaron Hernandez (five-year, $40 million contract extension).
"I felt good to finally get back out there," Fells said Monday, "but there's definitely a lot of work that still has to get done, so I'm working hard with the training staff and with the coaching staff and trying to get on the same page with everyone else."
Fells got a few snaps in the Patriots' 30-28 loss at Tampa Bay, and he said he felt comfortable with the progress he had made to get to that point. But it's a process that has to take its own pace, he said.
"I feel confident in my ability," he said. "With this training staff and this coaching staff, they see a lot of things in me and they trust me to do whatever needs to be done to get ready."
While Fells probably doesn't have to sweat out his spot on the roster, cornerback Marquice Cole has made it past one hurdle but now has to prove himself once more to earn a spot among a crowded group of defensive backs.
The Northwestern alum, who toiled for the last three seasons for the rival New York Jets, said it's a matter of personal pride for him to give his best in the battle to edge ahead of players like rookie Alfonzo Dennard and veteran Sterling Moore.
"Whatever I need to do, no matter what they ask me to do, I'm going to go out there and go as hard as I possibly can." he said.
Cole is well traveled, having originally been signed by Oakland as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and making stops in Tennessee and New Orleans before catching on with the Jets. Yet when the cuts come in the last week of the preseason, old memories quickly rush to the surface.
"It's a really tough day," he said. "Being on different teams and things like that, I've been through the process of being there for training camp and being released. Some guys you become friends with, the reality is you may never see them again in your life. It's definitely a tough day."
Cole, 28, said he'd have just one piece of advice for younger players just starting the process.
"Never give up," he said. "Keep grinding ... because, like I said, I've been through it, a couple of times. It's the hardest part, but you've got to take the good with the bad, fight through it, and if this is what you really want to do, go home, work hard and wait for your next opportunity."
Tonight's game is likely to be important to bubble players such as wide receiver Jesse Holley, a surprise survivor of the first cut amid the departures of Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney; running back Brandon Bolden, whose performance in the previous preseason games has been erratic; the aforementioned Dennard, whose draft status fell because of off-field issues and his playing time disappeared after a hamstring injury on the first day of camp; and safety Nate Ebner, the rugby-playing rookie that has shown a surprising nose for the ball in practice and games.
No matter what happens at MetLife Stadium tonight, 22 players will have to be pared from the Patriots' roster before 9 p.m. Friday. There will be more moves after that; Belichick is notorious for tweaking the roster, and he's likely to do so several times before the opener Sept. 9 at Tennessee if he can find cast-off players he believes can improve his team.
But as it always the case, a player can make a case for himself - either with this team, or some other team's scouts - with a good showing in the last exhibition game.