FOXBORO - So far in this NFL preseason, the Patriots' games haven't been much more than glorified situational-football scrimmages.
That may change tonight.
The Patriots will be playing their second game in a five-day stretch when they take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7:30 p.m.; Ch. 4, 64) at Raymond James Stadium. But they made the strategic move of holding several key regulars out of Monday night's 27-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and many of them will be front-and-center tonight for the closest the team will get to a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
Among those expected to get a lot of playing time is quarterback Tom Brady, who played in two series in the opener against the Saints and wasn't anywhere near the playing field against the Eagles. It's doubtful he'll play much Wednesday at MetLife Stadium against the Giants, if at all.
Brady said he hoped his limited playing time in the preseason will get him ready to face the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 9, when the real thing starts.
"We'll see when we kick off, but the goal is to be ready and prepared when we need to be," Brady told reporters in Tampa on Wednesday. "Coach Belichick has been through this quite a bit and so have I, so I'm sure when the time comes to play, we'll be as prepared as we can possibly be."
Brady may be without a few familiar weapons tonight. Wide receiver Wes Welker (unknown injury) didn't practice in the joint workout with the Bucs on Thursday, and Jabar Gaffney (thigh injury) was also held out. Deion Branch played extensively Monday, so he may be given a pass tonight as well. But Brady will have Brandon Lloyd on the field with him as well as tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the offensive line may be of a more familiar makeup as well.
It's still not certain if left guard Logan Mankins will be ready to test his surgically repaired right knee, although he has practiced since last week. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is also new to the practice field this week, as is blocking tight end Daniel Fells. Right guard Brian Waters continues to be a no-show even though he's still listed on the team's numerical roster, leading to widespread media speculation that the 13-year veteran's return is not assured.
The offensive line has been of significant concern in this preseason, but Brady said he couldn't waste time worrying about who's in front of him and who's not.
"They're doing their job and I have to worry about my job," he said. "I think part of what our team has always been built on is guys having trust in each other to do what they need to do to be competitive and that's what we're trying to do out here in practice.
"It's not like you come out here and the second you're practicing, you have every problem solved," he said. "That's why we're out here practicing every single day - to try to make improvements, to try to get better. That's what we're trying to accomplish. This is a tough game and it's for the mentally tough. I think you have to build on your good plays and try to eliminate the bad plays, and that's what we try to do."
In a rare appearance before the media Wednesday, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said he was pleased with the progress of the younger linemen, particularly left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon, the latter of whom spent the first half of last season on the PUP list as he underwent cancer treatments.
"Personally, I'm really pleased with the way (Solder and Cannon) are developing," the veteran coach said. "Is it the finished product? No. We have a couple more weeks to get it as good as it can be, and then we're going to play games.
"There is no cliff I'm throwing myself off right now," he said. "I'm telling you the truth. That glass is half full and filling up. That's just how I see it."
The Patriots' defensive unit has appeared to be ahead of the offense in this preseason because of some impressive performances by the first-round draft picks, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones. Safety Steve Gregory (free agent from San Diego) has also been impressive, although the chemistry he has been developing with fellow safety Patrick Chung will be set back tonight as Chung, who injured his shoulder against Philadelphia, is unlikely to play.
Tackle Vince Wilfork, who was given the night off Monday, said Thursday that there's still a lot of work to be done before the defense can consider itself a finished product.
"We're going into the third game now and everything has to be jelling," he said. "This third game, I think everyone treats as a regular-season game and you approach your preparation and everything like that. We're going to have a lot of quality reps out there and see what we can put together as a team. We definitely need it."
The weather forecasts for Friday night are for clear skies and 80-degree temperatures, with humidity levels close to 70 percent - steamier than what the Patriots have endured so far, but still good for developing the team's fitness level, Wilfork said.
"Coming down here and practicing in the weather and against a pretty physical football is going to better us down the road," he said. "We got a lot of stuff done that we wanted to get done. It wasn't perfect, but I think we got some good work in and going into the game, I feel very confident and the team feels very confident going in. And that's all we look for. Health is everything and going in and being able to practice at a high level and then play at a high level and come out healthy, that's our goal."