FOXBORO - Enjoy what you'll see in the first half of tonight's preseason game between the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium.
You're not likely to see your favorite players again until the first weekend of September.
It's dress rehearsal time, the preseason game that will most resemble the action and execution that's expected from a team that's ready to play the games for real. Of course, that won't last all night; the usual practice is for the regulars to play about three quarters - some more than others or some less than others depending upon their need for game reps or their risk factor.
During that time, the coaching staff (and fans as well) will want to see progress that could be carried into the regular season if it were to start the following day. Players, however, know that the learning will continue right to the last practice snap of the preseason.
The relative importance of the third preseason game may be a bit of a mirage, running back Shane Vereen said.
"I think people might say that just because the starters play more than they have in the past two games," he said, "but at the same time, you've got to look at each opportunity, each rep, as a chance to get better and prepare yourself for Sept. 7."
But Vereen admitted that the preparation for this game against the Panthers (7:30 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12) did have a different feel to it - a little more intensity, a little more of a sense of urgency.
"Absolutely, I'd say so," he said. "At the end of the day, you've still got to work on what you've got to work on and that's what we're trying to get out of this game."
This is the 14th year in which Tom Brady will enter the third preseason game as the unquestioned starting quarterback of the Patriots, so it goes without saying that he knows its importance in the grand scheme of things.
"This will tell us where we're at," Brady said Wednesday. "We've got to go out there and execute really well in order to move the ball down the field. They've got some of the best linebackers, a very good secondary and one of the best pass rushes in the league. It's a good challenge, and I think the guys are excited. This is big week that we've tried to make some improvements, and we'll see if it pays off."
Brady got two series' worth of work in last week's 42-35 win over Philadelphia - back-to-back possessions, in fact, because the first one ended on Cary Williams' interception and 77-yard return for a touchdown.
Obviously, Brady doesn't want to see a repeat of that circumstance tonight. But more important to both him and the players on the other side of the ball will be the continued adaptation to how the officials say that new rules will be enforced in the upcoming season.
The most obvious one is the "point of emphasis" about illegal contact in the secondary against receivers.
"I think you've got to focus on what your job is and not necessarily worry about the calls," Brady said. "For those defensive players, yeah, they've got to understand that. The offensive players, they're talking about cut blocks a lot this year, you've got to understand the rules. Not much has changed for the quarterback, so a lot of it for me is just trying to play quarterback and do that the best way I can. That's where a lot of the preparations have been this year is just focusing on things I need to do better."
But there has been a change for quarterbacks regarding their cadence while calling signals. Referees will no longer permit changes in the cadence or body movement that is designed to fool the defensive line into thinking the snap is imminent.
"I guess you can't (move) the shoulders, the head and the hands with the voice," Brady said. "They talk about calling that quite a bit. Sometimes it's just natural as you try to inflect your voice, just the movement of everything gets you going. But we've got to be cautious of it because I was warned a bunch by (referee) John Parry, who was here last week, about doing that in practice.
"He said, 'Look, I'm OK with it, but there are a lot of refs who probably won't be.' So I think you've just got to try to make the changes because whatever the rules are, we've just got to adjust to them. They're going to call it the way they're going to call it, and then we've got to be able to adjust and play smart, because you can't come out of the game with 12 penalties and think you're going to win every week," he said.
While tonight's game is expected to be a close approximation of the regular season, there will still be some missing elements. Tight end Rob Gronkowski's rehab continues along its steady route, but it's highly unlikely he would be tested against the Panthers tonight. Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has also missed practice all week and probably won't see action. Defensively, it appears that the anticipated first unit is intact and should get a reasonable amount of work.
There's always the chance, if Bill Belichick doesn't like what he sees tonight, that some regulars could be forced into action next Thursday at MetLife Stadium against the Giants. But that would not be a good sign - and as Belichick said earlier in the week, bad signs in training camp don't magically become positives in September.
"You have to be able to show some mental toughness, some ability to block out distractions and focus on your job and improving individually and as a team and all those things," Belichick said. "If you can do those over a training camp period of, call it six weeks, then it's probably a pretty good indication that you have a chance to do it during the year.
"If you don't, then it's probably an indication that when the pressure really comes on during the season, which the pressure is going to mount for the team as the season goes, I'd say the likelihood of it all just magically coming together without a legitimate foundation, I haven't had a lot of great experience with that," he added.