BOSTON (CBS) — Rarely is there reason for much excitement in the NFL preseason, but if ever there were an appropriate time to start feeling the football tinglies, this week would be it.

The third preseason game is always the one that most closely resembles a real, live football game. The starters on both sides of the ball typically play the entire first half and even into the third quarter in many cases, and as viewers, we get our first real look at what the team might look like come the regular season.

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Of course, it’s not always the most significant picture. The Patriots looked awful against the Lions in Week 3 of the preseason last year, losing 40-9, but that didn’t stop them from going 12-4 and making the AFC Championship Game. They lost 30-28 to Tampa Bay in the third week of the 2012 preseason, and they likewise went 12-4 and made the AFC Championship Game. In 2011, they lost 34-10 to Detroit but ended up making the Super Bowl.

So clearly, the results don’t matter that much. But for perhaps the only time of the preseason, the process should be enjoyable to watch.

Here’s what to keep an eye on in tonight’s Patriots-Panthers game, which you can watch on WBZ-TV and listen to on 98.5 The Sports Hub at 7:30 p.m.

Stevan Ridley
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: All eyes will be on Stevan Ridley, specifically whether or not he can hold on to the football.

It’s a big deal this week, after last week when Ridley reopened the fumbling issue, which is always bubbling at the surface, waiting to pop. It wouldn’t be fair to signal the Fumble Alarm every time Ridley loses the ball, but considering last week’s came on a rather routine tackle, the spotlight has been fired up.

Obviously, Ridley is the most explosive, talented back on the Patriots roster. But Bill Belichick proved last year that he’s not afraid to plant his running back on the sideline in street clothes to teach him the importance of ball security.

“We always talk about ball security, taking care of the ball,” Belichick said this week when asked about Ridley’s fumble. “There’s nothing that correlates more to winning and losing than turnovers, so that’s always a high priority for us.”

Well, Ridley’s going up against a tenacious defense, one that held him to 48 yards on 13 carries last year. Ridley did find the end zone in that game … but he also lost a fumble. In the red zone. While nonchalantly carrying the ball down by his hip. Ridley then fumbled the next week and did not dress for the game that followed.

If Ridley fumbles this week … whoa, boy.

Who Will Emerge At Wide Receiver?
Looking back to that Week 11 loss in Carolina, one thing that stands out is New England’s leading receiver: running back Shane Vereen.

Kenbrell Thompkins caught two balls for 60 yards, Danny Amendola caught six for 45, Aaron Dobson caught four for 38 and Julian Edelman caught three passes for 27 yards, his third-worst week of the season.

It was slow-going for the offense as a whole, and that Carolina defense should present a similarly difficult challenge this time around.

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And with Tom Brady presumably playing more than a half, it’ll be interesting to see which of his receivers can get open and make plays. Former Panther Brandon LaFell has worked well with Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Mallett, but this should be his first real chance to get in some work with Brady.

While it’s true that without Rob Gronkowski, the entire offense this week will be different from the one that plays in the regular season, there’s still much to be figured out about that receiving corps. A standout performance from a receiver against Carolina would say a lot.

A Glimpse Of Revis Island

Darrelle Revis  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Darrelle Revis (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Last week, we saw what Darrelle Revis looks like in a Patriots uniform during a game, but that was pretty much all that we saw. He wasn’t challenged or asked to do much, so it wasn’t the most memorable debut.

Perhaps Cam Newton, working with new receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery, will want to put Revis to the test.

It’s tough when the major offseason addition is an all-world corner, because when that corner is doing his job well, it doesn’t always show up on television. It’d be nice to at least catch a glimpse on Friday night.

Flag Relief?
Anyone who watched the Patriots host the Eagles last week knows that the officials got themselves involved much too often, killing any and all flow and making the first half an interminable mess of football-related activity.

Hopefully for the sake of everyone involved, the flags fly slightly less often this time around. But if the calls remain tight, there are two things to watch.

First, and most obviously, will be the adjustments the defensive backs have to make. Brandon Browner, of course, is as physical a corner as there can be in the NFL, so he figures to have the steepest learning curve.

Secondly, there’s this: Who is the absolute best coach in the NFL when it comes to manipulating rules to work in his team’s favor? That would be Bill Belichick.

See, while the entire football world is crying in outrage about the increased emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding, Belichick has been mostly quiet about it. If these are indeed the way things are now, perhaps Bill will tap into his purported “evil genius” and figure out ways to best take advantage of the calls, and that’s on both sides of the ball. The preseason would be a good time for him to see what works.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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