The last preseason game means vastly different things to different players. Established veterans are looking to get some final tune-up work, or perhaps get some added rest, and avoid injury before the regular season. But rookies and other young players view it as a final chance at survival.
While it's possible that Tom Brady and the rest of the starters will make a cameo tonight against the Giants, it's the bottom of the roster that will garner the bulk of the attention. The bubble will burst for 22 players Friday night when teams need to be down to the league-mandated 53-man limit by 9 p.m. Things will almost certainly remain fluid for the Patriots at that point as Bill Belichick is constantly tinkering with his roster during the days leading up to the opener.
But first things first and that's the preseason finale at MetLife Stadium. The desperation of those running around the field, particularly during the second half, will be striking but it also will be interesting to see how Belichick chooses to handle the playing time. Here are some players/areas that we'll have particular interest in tonight:
1. The offensive line – It hasn't been a great summer for Dante Scarnecchia's troops but tonight offers a chance to see the starting group that potentially could open the season. It's possible that Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer could line up from left to right tonight and in Nashville against the Titans Sept. 9. It would be the first time this group was intact this summer. Also, it will be interesting to see if Brian Waters is still part of the equation moving forward, although that won't happen tonight.
2. Defensive end – The starters from Day 1 have been Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, but the battle for playing time beyond that is ongoing. Rookie Jake Bequette has been quiet but his roster spot is secure as a third-round pick with pass rushing ability. Jermaine Cunningham appears to have done enough to earn a job as well. That leaves perhaps one spot for Trevor Scott and rookie Justin Francis. Francis has some versatility with his ability to play tackle and end while Scott is limited to the edge. This will be the final evaluation under game conditions for this group.
3. Jeff Demps – I have to admit, I'm intrigued by this guy's speed. We saw it in spurts in Tampa when he played with very little practice time. Now he's had a chance to at least get acclimated a bit, and it would be safe to assume he'll get some more run tonight. Also worth noting here is the health status of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Both missed some practice time this week and it would not be surprising to see them sit this one out. And where does Danny Woodhead fit in this suddenly crowded group? Does Brandon Bolden have the ability to play fullback? Does Eric Kettani have a role? Lots of questions at running back.
4. Secondary depth – Marquice Cole enjoyed a nice end to training camp and brought that solid play to the game field last week in Tampa. It will be interesting to see if he can continue that tonight and win himself a job. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard saw limited reps against the Bucs after coming off a leg injury suffered early on and tonight will be his first opportunity for extended action. Their presence on special teams will be worth noting as well. Both are firmly on the bubble.
5. Backup quarterbacks – Ryan Mallett has made a bid at applying some pressure on Brian Hoyer recently. Whether it's enough to supplant Hoyer as Brady's backup remains to be seen. Expect to see both tonight after a Brady cameo. Even though it would be surprising to see either left off the roster, monitoring their development is still worthwhile.