EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Remember when the Patriots could overcome any injury, replace any part? Ty Law went down and Asante Samuel and Randall Gay stepped up. The "system" acted as a team-building tourniquet. These aren't those Patriots -- not yet.
So, the good news from last night's preseason finale at the New Meadowlands Stadium (a little soul-less and anti-septic but definitely a welcome update) was that there were no more major injuries (that we know of) for Bill Belichick's depleted defense to deal with and no loss of manpower for the meal ticket of this team, the offense.
That's really all you want out of the final preseason game. The score is irrelevant. If you come out of the final faux football game without any new afflictions or ailments then consider yourself a winner. That's why rookie wide receiver Buddy Farnham was playing safety on the Giants' game-winning 60-yard touchdown pass. It's the reason linebacker Pierre Woods lined up at defensive end and cornerback and rookie offensive linemen Ted Larsen and Thomas Welch played on the defensive line late in the game.
It's all about preservation in preseason Game No. 4. Let the sacrificial lambs on the lower rung of the roster take the hits.
Belichick put his offense and defense out on the field for two series apiece in last night's 20-17 loss to the Giants and they came out unscathed. Well, the defense may have had its confidence bruised a little bit when Eli Manning and Co., marched down 86 yards on the opening possession for a touchdown that tight end Kevin Boss, who scored on a 13-yard toss from Manning the Younger, accurately described as a walk-in.
But the Patriots defenders bounced back to force a punt, call it a night and move on to the season opener against Cincinnati.
"Yeah, you really don't want to lose anybody for the regular season, so that's something that's definitely important," said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. "That's something that's a positive that we can take away, and obviously we didn't get the win but we still feel confident as a team. We were able to do some good things. There were obviously some not-so-good things. We'll look at the film and see what we got to do, but I think now that we're into the regular season the excitement is going to get a lot higher and hopefully the guys that we lose or lost health-wise will be able to recover fast."
Two of the guys who won't be convalescing quickly are defensive end Ty Warren (hip surgery) and cornerback Leigh Bodden (torn rotator cuff), both of whom are out for the season.
One way to look at the losses is that they don't bode well. Warren was an anchor at end for a defense that was run over by the Ravens. Bodden was the best cornerback for a defense that has allowed 52 touchdown passes the last two seasons, tied for 28th in the 32-team NFL.
On a defense with some question marks they were two proven, veteran answers at crucial positions.
Another way to view their losses is that this is a chance for the Patriots to silence the doubters and prove they're still the Patriots. That they can replace players at will. In 2008, the Patriots lost Tom Brady, their most indispensable player, and still won 11 games.
"Those guys are obviously huge impact guys on our defense, so really it's just looking to the guys that are playing behind them to step up," said Banta-Cain, who was around for the glory days of the plug-and-play Patriots, when a wide receiver (Troy Brown) played defensive back not in a meaningless preseason game but in the Super Bowl.
"Like I told them, usually the organization they get players for that kind of situation. Usually the guy behind the guy that gets hurt is a capable potential starter. So, the strength of our team has to be in our depth, and if one guy goes down the next guy has got to step up."
Banta-Cain knows what it's like to be an injury replacement. He was one in 2006, when inside linebacker Junior Seau broke his arm against the Bears. Belichick kicked Mike Vrabel inside and Banta-Cain, a 2003 seventh-round pick, got the first five starts of his NFL career.
It was enough of a sample size to get him a three-year, $8.9 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers, who employed Banta-Cain for two seasons before he was released and returned to Fort Foxborough.
"It gave me an opportunity to start the rest of the season," recalled Banta-Cain. "If that didn't happen, who knows where I'd be right now. That's an example of me getting an opportunity based on an injury to go show what I can do, so hopefully that's the case for our injuries this year."
I know a lot of you out there think I'm all doom and gloom, but there could be an upside to some of these injuries. It could be a chance for the Patriots to rediscover their soul. Instead of relying on veteran quick-fixes, they can develop internal fixes like the old days.
Maybe, Ron Brace can prove he isn't a bust after all by playing a role at defensive end. Terrence Wheatley has been written off, but the Patriots need him now with a thin and callow corps of cornerbacks. Maybe corner Kyle Arrington can prove he's more than a special teams cog.
Banta-Cain is a Californian, so he usually has a sunny disposition.
"In a positive light, it gives another guy a chance to establish himself, maybe a guy who maybe deserved being on the field," Banta-Cain said.
The Patriots can only hope so, lest they become the sacrificial lambs during the regular season.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.