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Patriots bear up well with one left

FOXBOROUGH -- The measurement of success the Patriots have in their exhibition games isn't necessarily the won-lost record, which is 3-0 going into tonight's finale against the Bears at Gillette Stadium. They would prefer simply to be a team that made solid improvement each week and came out of the games without major injuries.

If they can get through tonight with all of their major players intact, they will have accomplished that.

Certainly the New York Jets would trade an awful exhibition record for a healthy Chad Pennington. The Atlanta Falcons would gladly have stumbled all over the field in exchange for a healthy Michael Vick. The Philadelphia Eagles couldn't care less about their record in games that don't count, but they would certainly love to have back the four players injured in their game against the Patriots last Friday night.

According to many scouts who have watched them this summer, the Patriots play these games as hard as any team in the league. Could that be the secret to good health? Athletes certainly have been known to claim that it's the times when they're not giving 100 percent that they are apt to get hurt.

Coach Bill Belichick, to no one's surprise, has given nary a hint as to how he will approach this game.

Will he play the starters for at least a half, maybe into the third quarter, and then pull the plug? Or is that too risky?

The main concern has to be Tom Brady. Will Belichick use him for just a series or two so he stays in a good rhythm? The good thing for the Patriots is that they'll have nine days between the exhibition finale and the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills. If there are injuries, there will be a little extra time between games to heal them. "You want to come out unscathed from the preseason and hopefully get ready for the regular season," said center Damien Woody, who has a bruised ankle. "In my situation, I am just trying to get treatment and hopefully I can get out there on Wednesday for a final tuneup before we play Buffalo in the regular season." "Tuneup" is the key word; the one to avoid is "breakdown."

After tonight, the Patriots will have time to heal, but time to get rusty, as well. "Those are the cards that we have been dealt," said Woody. "We are just going to see how it goes." So far, it has gone well for New England, which has been able to avoid major injuries and see younger players get valuable experience. For example, cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson and lineman Ty Warren all have been able to work with the first-team defenses.

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