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Patriots-Panthers Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax

Bill Belichick acknowledged this week that he and his team use the lead up to the third preseason game as a preview to the normal schedule that will become weekly reality in the regular season.

Now, that doesn't mean that Friday night's third preseason game in Carolina against the Panthers is as important as some may make it out to be, but it is clearly the closest thing to meaningful action prior to the Sept. 10 season opener against the Steelers.

That should lead to extended playing time for the "starters" on both sides of the ball. It could also mean the debut of some players who've yet to play this summer based on health, rehab or precaution plans.

It's another marquee matchup of QBs, too. Tom Brady's squad will face former No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton after two weeks spent battling future Hall of Famers Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

Belichick and Co. have spent the week treating preparations for the Panthers as closely as they could to a regular season scenario, which may or may not manifest itself in the action on the field.

The added "importance" of the game in mind, here are a few aspects of Friday night's matchup in Carolina to keep an eye on as the" real" football of the regular season draws another important step closer:

Get Brady going! - Tom Brady's playing time this preseason hasn't been very impressive He's had four three-and-outs in five series of action. He's completed just three passes, although he did have a couple others end as bad drops. Regardless, it would be good for all involved to get the first offense going, especially in the expected extended playing time. Like all quarterbacks, Brady is at his best when he's comfortable, in-sync and on the same page with the rest of his offense. Regardless of how long he lasts against the Panthers, improvement from his first two performances of the summer would be nice. It would also be notable if Brady doesn't get as much playing time this week as he has in the past in the third preseason game. Could that be a sign was to what the Patriots are expecting/preparing for in terms of Brady's pending four-game suspension to open the season? As is so often the case, No. 12 will be No. 1 on the list of things to watch for.

Debut night? - Plenty of seemingly important Patriots have yet to play this summer. That group includes Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Scott Chandler, Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, Ryan Wendell and, obviously, newly-signed receiver Reggie Wayne. All, save maybe for Wendell, would seem to have a chance to play on Friday night if Belichick so chooses. There is probably not a pressing need, necessarily, for any in the group to get out there against the Panthers. But it's always better to see a player perform, get reps and knock the rust off than it is to assume he'll be ready for some Randy Moss-like opening day debut. And if Wayne does get on the field just a few days after arriving in Foxborough, many will get a first chance to decide for themselves if the legendary Colts pass catcher has anything left in the tank to help the Patriots this fall.

Prepare for Roethlisberger - Not a lot of game planning or scheme will be decided on Friday night. But, going against Newton is a bit of a tune-up to prepare for opening night opponent Ben Roethlisberger. Newton is a big, physical passer with a strong arm and the ability to make things happen with his legs. He runs more than his Steelers counterpart, which also is a good test for New England's defensive ends and linebackers, especially Chandler Jones who gets sucked down inside too far too often against such opponents and gives up the edge. Getting after and getting some success against Newton, who has few receivers to work with, might be a nice defensive step toward defending Roethlisberger's Steelers.

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

Settling in the secondary? - Will Devin McCourty see time at cornerback for the second straight week? Will veteran newcomer Tarell Brown get more extended action in the back end as he competes for playing time at cornerback? In what should be his longest stretch of playing time this summer will Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler look like a No. 1 cornerback who's in control of the left cornerback job in New England? Will the safety position begin to shake itself out? There are a lot of questions remaining in the back end of the new-look New England defense. It would be nice to feel like some of those questions are somewhat answered at the conclusion of Friday night.

Roster ho! - How many roster spots are really up for grabs in New England heading into Friday night? Not even Belichick could likely give an exact number at this point. But, there are jobs to be won and lost in the next week-plus. Keeping an eye on who is playing when, with whom and for how long will be an important part of analyzing the action in Carolina. Early reps with the starters can be a good thing for guys, especially young players. Late reps with the "backups" late in the game can be a bad thing for a veteran. In many ways the Panthers matchup is a last chance for many to make their mark this summer prior to the far-less-important fourth preseason game. Some guys could be sent packing after Friday night and on some level that result could come based on the game itself. No pressure or anything, guys.

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

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