The New England Patriots will conclude their preseason on Thursday night as they take on the New York Giants. For the Pats, it's been a long week since their 40-9 blowout loss to the Detroit Lions. There has been off-the-field news with the latest Aaron Hernandez article in Rolling Stone and on-the-field news with the release of 2011 2nd round pick, cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Generally, in the fourth preseason game, not a lot of the starters see action, if any at all, because the team wants as many of their players to be as healthy as possible for the season opener. The Patriots will also use this time to decide which players will make the roster when it gets trimmed down to 53 Saturday and which players could get sent to the practice squad or released. There is a chance that Tom Brady could play Thursday like he did two years ago to avoid going into the season with the bad taste in their mouths that they received in Detroit.
The Patriots' opponents, the New York Giants, are trying to avoid more injuries in a preseason full of them for Tom Coughlin. They lost their starting safety in Stevie Brown last week against the Jets due to a torn ACL. Two weeks ago, they saw their starting center (David Baas) and one of Eli Manning's key targets (Victor Cruz) fall victim to the injury bug. For the Giants, they are in a division that is wide open and have a young running back that can make explosive plays in David Wilson, who will fill the shoes of Ahmad Bradshaw this season.
Here are my keys to watching this final preseason game:
1. The Last of Tebow Time?: The national spotlight still circles around no. 5 Tim Tebow, but not as much as it used to. All eyes will be on when Tebow plays, how long he will play, and the quality of his play. Two weeks ago, Tebow looked awful against the Buccaneers with just -1 yard passing and one interception. Coach Belichick has said that Tebow has looked good in practice and he likes what he sees, but that has not translated to the preseason action. In fact, he makes Ryan Mallett's performance look good considering Mallett has had a disappointing preseason. If Tebow plays well, it may open up more creative uses in the offense by Josh McDaniels. Otherwise, it is more likely that the former Florida QB gets cut or stays on the roster as an inactive third string quarterback. However, considering this is the fourth preseason game, a Tebow vs. Ryan Nassib matchup would be interesting as well.
2. Getting Caught With A Cole: The Patriots do have needs at cornerback with the release of Dowling and with a pending court date for Alfonzo Dennard on September 6, two days before the opener. We have talked about Logan Ryan before in these previews and the rookie has had an excellent preseason. However, keep an eye on Marquise Cole. Cole saw some extensive playing time down the stretch last season, even though the memory of him is watching Anquan Boldin scorch him in the AFC Championship Game last season. Right now, the third cornerback spot is up for grabs with Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington locked up as the other two corners. Also, keep an eye on undrafted rookie free agent, Stephon Morris. Morris impressed writers in mini-camp and the early stages of training camp before suffering a hamstring injury.
3. Falling On Fumbles: When the Patriots 1st team was on the field last week, the offense had a bad case of fumbles. This includes rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld and running backs Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen. Belichick will look for much better ball protection in the preseason finale. This is important for Brandon Bolden because Bolden is battling with LeGarrette Blount for that third running back spot. Bolden did have one great game last season against the Bills, but he has not shown many flashes this preseason, as opposed to Blount. With the extensive playing time he should get, this is his chance to make an impression on the coaching staff.
Player to Watch: KR/PR Leon Washington – Leon Washington did not see any action against the Lions and the Patriots are in need of help on special teams. Washington has great value in both the kick and punt return game. With the Patriots stacked at running back, Washington's impact will most likely be on special teams. It will be interesting to see if Washington can distinguish himself in that role like he did with the Seahawks and the Jets. I think he will make the team and will make an impact in Thursday's game against the Giants.