By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Get ready to crank New England’s quarterback battle up to 11 on Thursday. It figures to be one of the most fascinating days in Foxboro this summer.

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Thursday is the day that quarterback Cam Newton can return to the team after missing the last five days — and three practices — due to a COVID protocol “misunderstanding.” During that time, and especially on Wednesday, rookie Mac Jones took full advantage of all the first-team reps.

Mac absolutely tore it up on the field on Wednesday, and did so against another team’s first defense. It was a continuation of all the progress he’s made throughout the summer, and some believe that Wednesday’s performance will be enough for Bill Belichick to flip the depth chart at the most important position on the field and name Jones the team’s starter over Newton.

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We’ll get our first hint at Belichick’s thinking when the team takes the field Thursday when Newton returns. Does the veteran slide right back into his spot with the starters as if nothing happened, pushing Jones back to the second team? Or does Mac keep on tossing bombs to the first team, pushing Cam down to the second unit? Does Newton practice at all, as a sort of punishment for his goof up with COVID rule book?

We’ve seen Belichick dole out some discipline for missing practices for a non-injury reason before. He sent a handful of players home when they were late getting to Gillette in a snow storm. He benched Jonas Gray for oversleeping and missing practice. If Newton was responsible for the miscommunication — and not the team — he could be in for a day of learning from the sidelines on Thursday. Sitting him for an important practice against another team would be a huge indictment on Newton.

But the Patriots have done anything and everything to cover for Cam since his arrival. If that continues Thursday, and he takes the first-team reps while Jones is relegated back to the twos, then it’s all but certain that Newton will be the starting QB to begin the season.

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It looked like the job was Newton’s after a solid performance against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. But his COVID issue mixed with Mac’s stellar showing in Wednesday’s practice have injected the QB battle with steroids. And Thursday could be the biggest day of the competition.

CBSBoston.com Staff