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Patriots-Giants Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax

One week from tonight the Patriots will open the NFL season at Gillette Stadium against the Steelers.

That game will be the biggest football affair on the planet since the Super Bowl. It will be a nationally televised, primetime battle that all the NFL world will be watching.

It probably goes without saying that tonight's game, the annual preseason finale between the Patriots and Giants will not be nearly as important or as watched.

But that doesn't mean some interesting things won't take place on the turf in Foxborough as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin take the final steps toward roster makeup and the regular season.

Sure, it's unlikely we'll see much if any of the top couple dozen players from either New England or New York. They will be protected, especially for a Patriots team that plays in a week.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots preseason game against the Giants.

But there could very well be final pushes from guys seeing their most extended playing time of the summer for not only roster spots but potential key roles when the regular season rolls around next week.

Make no mistake, this isn't the Super Bowl or the season opener. But it's another chance to watch the defending champions put the final touches on a new team for a new season that's going to march forth in a week on another journey toward potential greatness.

Given the unique nature of the final preseason game and the uncertainty of the players who'll get the most run during the game, here are a few things to keep an eye on in the annual renewal of a Northeast rivalry that's included two heartbreaking Super Bowls from the New England perspective:

Bubble wrappers - Tom Brady may or may not play in the regular season opener against Pittsburgh given the status of his legal appeal of his four-game NFL suspension. He's certainly unlikely to play tonight. That's true of probably most of New England's projected starters and key backups on both sides of the ball. While the roster is at 75 players, it's more likely that Thursday night's action will include a more regular season-like number of players - 40-50 - seeing action in the game. Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Jamie Collins and so many others will likely warm up vigorously and then watch from the sidelines as their less-established teammates battle it out. They can't get hurt if they don't play. They must be ready next Thursday night, that's the most important thing right now.

Bottoms up - With all due respect, the bottom of the roster and depth chart will be on full display against New York. That means guys looking to fill out the one or two roster spots that may remain open will be fighting it out. They will also be getting extensive reps to try to win jobs on practice squads or just put some good game snaps on tape for the rest of the league to see and keep their names in the mix for potential future jobs. Chris Harper has been impressive and has certainly earned the right to stick in the NFL in some form or fashion moving forward. He, and many others, can strengthen that argument against the Giants.

Ryan's hope - Third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley will make his Patriots debut on Thursday night and the veteran should see the bulk of the action under center. His future in New England is very much uncertain as the human insurance policy for the way that Brady's appeal plays out. Most believe that Brady will be available in some form or fashion to open the year. If that's the case, Lindley will be sent packing this weekend at the cuts to 53. As a guy who was not on a roster this summer before the Patriots came calling in training camp, Lindley needs to show something tonight to try to extend a career that seems to be on life support. It's been a tough year for a guy who started a playoff game for the Cardinals last January but look for Lindley to make some plays, try to get the ball down the field and gain some attention as he looks to potentially lure another team into giving him a chance at some point to keep his NFL hopes alive. In many ways this will be Lindley's game for better or worse.

Late night debuts - Beyond Lindley, a couple other newcomers will see their first Patriots action against the Giants. Returner and receiver Jalen Saunders has one quick game to try to show his stuff as a potential option in the kicking game, although the Patriots did see him in extended practice action with the Saints a couple weeks ago in West Virginia. Given the lack of depth at receiver, DaVaris Daniels should also see plenty of run after being claimed off waivers from the Vikings. He's a guy who missed his final season at Notre Dame, so a big game in the fourth preseason affair might important to his future opportunities.

Vets late? - While most players on the field will be young and unproven types, there could be some veterans who get extended run as well. If guys like Nate Ebner, Logan Ryan or Tavon Wilson are playing in the fourth quarter against the Giants it could be the writing on the wall for their futures in New England. Who doesn't play early tonight, says something about their status with the team. Who plays late can also say something, although it's often a much different message.

Relative importance - Belichick always likes to say that any game, even the fourth preseason affair, is important to the players that are playing in it. That's especially true tonight. Some guys who'll step on the field are battling to extend their careers, whether that be in New England or elsewhere. Others may literally be donning a helmet and shoulder pads for the final time. So any action that occurs for them will be their own lasting legacy, at least in their own memory. That type of relative importance increases the energy level for many taking part in this otherwise lackluster, star-free football game. But, if you love hard-fought football regardless of the names on the jerseys, then Thursday night will put forth some desperate effort by guys on both teams looking to avoid the potential reality of the end of their playing careers. Desperation can be incredible motivating inspiration.

What other things will you be watching for in this preseason finale? Let us know with a comment below!

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