By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It’s around this time every summer when you start to see preseason games referred to in one of two ways. It’s either a “dress rehearsal,” or it’s the “all-important third preseason game.”

Frankly, neither description is apt. There’s no such thing as a dress rehearsal in a contact sport like football. And the words “important” and “preseason” are inherently paradoxical. Nothing that happens on an NFL field in August is that important.

Still, as preseason games go, this is the best we’ve got. The starters will play for both teams for at least the first half, which might give some indications as to what the world can expect to see once the real football games begin in a few weeks.

Can Meyers Continue To Produce?

Jakobi Meyers (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Nobody’s stood out through camp and the preseason more than undrafted rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers, who enters Week 3 of the preseason with the second-most receiving yards (151) across the NFL. He’s also the only player in the league with two receiving touchdowns thus far.

Yet, despite that obvious shine, Meyers was forced to play the entirety of the game last week in Tennessee, to the point where he was actually re-inserted into the game after suffering some sort of minor injury. Outsiders have basically locked in Meyers’ roster spot, but the coaching staff had him out there in the waning minutes of preseason game No. 2.

It makes you wonder — at least a little bit — where exactly Meyers stands.

In that regard, Meyers could take some titanic steps forward in his quest to make the 53-man roster by showing that he can continue to produce when Tom Brady is under center. The opportunities may be limited, but if Brady ends up quarterbacking between four and six drives on Thursday night, it should provide a window for Meyers to prove that he can apply his practice-field chemistry with Brady in a game situation.

Meyers has accepted and thrived with every challenge sent his way this summer. Thursday night with Brady could be the final exam.

Brady’s Targets

Maurice Harris (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Outside of Meyers, it will be interesting to note where Brady looks to complete his passes. With Julian Edelman just coming off the non-football injury list this week, it’s unclear if he and this thumb are ready for game contact against the starting defense of the Panthers. Likewise, after N’Keal Harry sat out Saturday’s game with this assumed hamstring injury, the rookie first-rounder’s Gillette Stadium debut remains in question.

There appears to be a firm bubble battle taking place between Maurice Harris and Phillip Dorsett, so this may be an oportunity for those two wideouts to impress Brady by doing the only two things Brady cares about: being in the right place and catching the football.

Braxton Berrios, if given snaps, could state his case as an NFL receiver, too.

We’re likely to see the first Tom Brady-Ben Watson connection in a game since 2009, but considering Watson’s out for the first four weeks of the year, Brady’s work with Lance Kendricks and/or Ryan Izzo/Eric Saubert will be of greater interest.

Can The D Handle A Real Quarterback?

Cam Newton (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Patriots’ defense has been awesome thus far in the preseason, Magnificent, even. A mostly stifling defensive unit.

But there is a difference between doing that against offenses led by Tom Savage/David Fales/Marcus Mariota/Ryan Tannehill/Logan Woodside, and offenses led by Cam Newton.

While Newton may never again recapture his MVP form from 2015, he’s still by far the best quarterback the Patriots’ defense will see this summer. So he’ll provide a much better test for a Patriots defense that has thus far allowed just 18 points over 120 minutes of football.

For the Patriots, deployment will be the most interesting part. The team simply has a preponderance of talent on the defensive side of the ball right now, so it will be fascinating to see what Bill Belichick/Jerod Mayo/Steve Belichick believe to be the true “first unit,” and which players get the first opportunities as subs.

Who’s The Backup?

Brian Hoyer, Josh McDaniels, Jarrett Stidham (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

A hallmark of the Belichick era is that the head coach never heaps specific expectations and goals upon any player. Not publicly. So we’ll never know exactly what the front office expected out of Jarrett Stidham in his rookie preseason.

Buuutttttt … if we were to guess, we would likely be safe to assume that he has exceeded some expectations. While stats don’t tell the entire story, he’s currently 28-for-43 (65.1%) for 372 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. He’s taken just one sack and he has a 107.9 passer rating.

Now, he threw two passes last week that could have (and should have?) been picked off and returned for touchdowns. On the flip side, though, he threw two picture-perfect passes that Harris couldn’t catch against the Lions, and he also missed out on tallying another touchdown pass in that game by about 3 inches, after Dontrelle Inman was ruled to have been down short of the goal line.

Putting the stats aside, Stidham has just looked very much in control of the offense when he’s been out there, something that not every Ryan Mallett or Kevin O’Connell has been able to say. So you have to wonder if Stidham’s performed well enough for the Patriots to feel comfortable dealing away veteran backup Brian Hoyer. (The other hallmark of the Belichick era has been the head coach’s affinity for asset hunting. And make no mistake: Trading away a backup quarterback and getting an asset in return is the type of thing that would make Belichick smile wide.)

For his part, Hoyer has been very good, outside of his pick to start last week’s game. He’s 18-for-22 (81.8%) for 202 yards, with two touchdowns and the pick for a 116.3 rating. He’s looked like someone who could manage to keep the offense afloat in the event that Brady ever needs to miss a few series, or a few weeks. (Probably not a few months, though.) The question the Patriots will have to answer in the coming weeks is whether Stidham can do a comparable job in the same situation, in which case Hoyer may be playing himself onto another roster this summer.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

The Patriots get back to action in the preseason with a game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, and WBZ-TV has you covered from start to finish. It begins with Patriots All-Access at 7 p.m., followed by the game at 7:30 p.m. Stay tuned after the game for Patriots Fifth Quarter for all reaction, analysis and postgame press conferences.

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