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Pats prepare for Newton with eye on Watson

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As far as summertime football clichés go, treating the third preseason game like a dress rehearsal for the regular season ranks high on the list. It's the game the starters often play into the second half, and even old-school traditionalists like Bill Belichick admit there's an element of game-planning that goes into such affairs.

While Belichick pointed out that the level of preparation that will take place ahead of Friday's trip to Charlotte to take on the Panthers will pale in comparison to the real thing, there will be plenty to take away from the first road game of the summer.

"We're looking forward to going down to Carolina [on Thursday]," he said. "This will be a great opportunity for us against the Panthers – a real good football team, do a lot of things well, have a lot of good players, well-coached, consistently one of the top teams in the league and do a lot of things that create problems for us that have been good for us to work on this week and good for us to see as we develop our team and other experiences to get us ready for the regular season.

"I think it will be a good – like it usually is down there – a good crowd, good environment. So, it's a good opportunity for our football team."

The Panthers have been a frequent exhibition foe for the Patriots, and the teams have met often in this "all important" Week 3 matchup. New England and Carolina went at it three straight times – all in Week 3 – from 2014-16 with the Patriots winning each time.

One of the benefits of having those matchups take place in the Week 3 is the defense usually gets to see Cam Newton for more than just a cameo, offering the chance to take on one of the better mobile quarterbacks in football.

This particular season may have even more benefit since the Patriots will take on Deshaun Watson and Houston in the opener on Sept. 9

"They're a lot like us — physical team, want to run the ball, want to have a good defense," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "I think this will definitely help us down the road, having Deshaun in the first game."

"[Newton] has gotten a lot better with not only scrambling, but scrambling to throw," safety Duron Harmon added. "Not only do we have to respect his running, but we have to respect him finding receivers down the field as well. He's really progressed over the years doing that, from the first time we played them my rookie year to where he's at right now."

Newton and the Panthers brought out the worst in the Patriots defense last season, shredding them for 33 points at Gillette Stadium in a 33-30 win on the road. While the secondary suffered several breakdowns in that game, which was likely the low point for cornerback Stephon Gilmore as he transitioned to the Patriots, Newton also made his share of individual plays with his legs.

"He's able to make quarterback throws, but he's also able to run like a running back," Hightower said. "I think Carolina does a good job of using those elements, whether it's a read-zone type of deal or even if it's a quarterback run on those short yardages. But I think it'll be a good test for us, having him and [running back Christian] McCaffrey and [tight end] Greg Olsen. It's not just one guy."

Belichick agreed that seeing Newton would be beneficial, but he also felt the Panthers in general present problems.

"The system they run is good. It complements the pressures and so forth defensively, so you have to really be alert for a lot of different things. They have really a dominant front seven, probably as good as any front seven in the league, and offensively they have an excellent running game. They've always been a good special teams unit. They're always good at the return game – not sure who we'll see back there. So we'll get a good look at all of it."

And thanks to the calendar saying it's Week 3 of the preseason, the Patriots should have plenty of opportunities.

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