By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The final preseason game is coming a little bit earlier this year. Unfortunately, there’s still quite a wait for the real football to begin.
With the NFL adopting a 17-game regular season, the preseason has of course been trimmed to just three games. Thus, Sunday evening’s preseason contest between the Giants and Patriots will be the final look we get at the New England football team until the regular season begins on Sept. 12.
On the positive front, this game should take on more of a real feel than the fourth preseason games used to have, as the coaching staff hasn’t had quite the same amount of game action to evaluate the roster. With the roster getting trimmed down from 80 to 53 on Tuesday, Sunday offers the last opportunity for many guys to make their case to make the final roster.
Those of us on the outside will also get one last dose of game action to make our own assessments. With that in mind, here’s what to watch for on Sunday at 6 p.m.
Come on, you know that it’s technically illegal to talk about the Patriots these days without first focusing on the quarterbacks. Our forefathers put it in the Constitution. We must abide.
It’s obviously been a busy week in the seesaw of positives and negatives in the QB competition in Foxboro. Cam Newton missed three days of practice, and Mac Jones absolutely lit up the Giants on that third missed day for Cam. The next day, though, Cam was the first QB on the field. But Mac got more reps. And he wasn’t nearly as good as he was a day prior.
So the QB watch on Sunday will begin there. Will Cam play? The starting QB generally doesn’t play in the fourth preseason game, but this is the third preseason game, so it’s a bit of an unknown. There’s also two full weeks between the final preseason game and the first regular season game, so getting some final game action in will likely be helpful for any player at any position.
After that, it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of steps forward Jones has continued to take. We know he’s been putting in the work behind the scenes, but it’s ultimately what he does on game day that will matter a whole lot more.
From a statistical standpoint, here’s what each QB has done through two preseason games.
232 yards, 6.1 Y/A
0 TD, 0 INT
152 yards, 9.5 Y/A
1 TD, 0 INT
It still seems like Newton is the starter, for a number of reasons. But at the very least, another positive performance from Jones — and perhaps his first touchdown — will add to what’s becoming a summer that’s showing the Patriots may have their long-term answer at QB.
HOW ABOUT THAT DEFENSE?
The Patriots didn’t allow a point last week in Philadelphia. They allowed just 13 points the week prior against Washington. The starting defense has yet to allow a point. And that’s without Stephon Gilmore involved.
It’s been something to watch.
While, yes, the NFC East wasn’t exactly a powerhouse last year, and yes, Jalen Hurts was a late scratch for Philly, and yes, the Giants had the second-worst offense in the NFL last year, this will nevertheless be one last chance for the New England defense to impress.
Matt Judon has looked like he’s been shot out of a cannon when he’s seen the field, building some excitement on the edge. Josh Uche was all over the field in Thursday’s practice and will look to carry that into the game. The playing time of Chase Winovich — who committed a roughing the passer penalty but also sacked the quarterback twice last week — is always worth keeping an eye on. And with Jonathan Jones suffering a minor injury, the mix at cornerback will be particularly intriguing.
And while we don’t know which players will be playing for New England, we do know they’ll be facing some real NFL competition on the other side:
Giants starters will play a "minimum" of one half Sunday vs. New England, per Joe Judge. RB Saquon Barkley (knee) and TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) will not play as they continue to ramp-up.
— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) August 27, 2021
While the preseason is only the preseason, a potential top-five defense wouldn’t mind entering the season with a solid body of work through three games.
MAYBE SOMETHING FROM AGHOLOR?
The Patriots, as has been reported in some newspapers, spent a ton of money to upgrade at some positions of weakness this offseason. One was at the wide receiver spot with the additions of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Thus far, though, we’ve seen just about nothing from Agholor through two preseason games.
He didn’t play against Washington while dealing with an injury. He did play vs. his old team in Philadelphia, logging 14 offensive snaps. But he wasn’t targeted.
Coming off an 896-yard, 8-touchdown season with the Raiders, it’s not as if Agholor is on the roster bubble or anything like that. But the region might want to see him get his hands on a pass or two before the games start to count.
Elsewhere at the position, we’ll see if Jakobi Meyers continues making his case to be the driver of the passing offense. He caught three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown last week, and he continues to catch anything thrown in his general vicinity in practice.
And at tight end, the same goes for Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, both of whom didn’t play last week due to injuries. It’s unclear if they’ll play in this one, but we really can’t get an idea of what the Patriots’ offense might ultimately look like until we see those two on the field.
A KICKER RESOLUTION
With Nick Folk a very limited participant throughout the summer, the kicking job has looked like it’s been Quinn Nordin’s to win or lose. His opening salvo vs. Washington was excellent. His follow-up showing in Philadelphia was disastrous.
Meanwhile, the veteran Folk has largely just been a spectator, until he returned to practice this week.
Bill Belichick has essentially left the undrafted rookie out there to sink or swim, and ultimately, last week’s three missed kicks (two PATs and a short field goal) may prove to be too much for Nordin to overcome in this one game. Nevertheless, Sunday presents the final opportunity for Nordin to make a case to the Patriots that he’s worthy of the job. Or, Folk will trot back out there and resume kicking duties.