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Eagles test will raise Patriots' learning curve

PHILADELPHIA -- A couple of debuts to watch tonight: the football unveiling of $500 million Lincoln Financial Stadium and the Patriots debut of Ted Washington.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, a Newton, Mass., native, took the Bob Kraft path to stadium-building, using his own money to bring a new venue to the Philadelphia market. His Eagles are considered one of the premier teams in the NFL and have reached the NFC Championship game the past two seasons. It will be a good challenge for the Patriots to see if they can keep up with Philadelphia's exceptional team speed.

"I am sure there will be a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around the game," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "This is, I think, a good test for the third preseason game. A lot of elements are in place that we will have to deal with. I think it will be good for us to have to deal with them. It is similar to a lot of the things we will be facing during the regular season. It's a short week. We have to cram everything into a little bit less time than normal. That is what it is. Where there is a short week, there is a long week."

While Belichick always preaches respect of the opponent, he and the players know the Eagles are a better team than the Giants or Redskins.

"There is no question that Philadelphia is at the top of the achievement level in the last two years," he said. "Statistically, they have been up there every year."

So do the players see this as their biggest test yet? "I would say probably yes, but that is not to slight anybody else because we take every opponent seriously," Belichick said.

The stadium, which has already hosted three nights of Bruce Springsteen and a Manchester United soccer game, will be sold out. Last season, Lurie's Eagles opened Gillette Stadium in the first exhibition game, and Lurie promised Kraft the Patriots would open his venue.

The Patriots have allowed only 19 points in their two exhibition victories, but Washington was able to expose their one big defensive weakness -- an inability to stop the run.

New England went to work immediately on solving that, making a last-gasp attempt to solidify the middle with the acquisition of the 35-year-old Washington, who no longer fit the Chicago Bears' plans.

Washington and the Patriots should have a rewarding relationship as long as: Washington stays healthy; he doesn't get overused or overworked; and he receives a contract extension before the end of the season if he proves his worth.

Washington's agent, Angelo Wright, has already discussed a new contract with the Patriots, and while he was told the Patriots would rather talk about it later, Wright wanted vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli to know it's foremost on Washington's mind.

"If it looks as though Ted is having a good season, and we're getting to midseason and things are working out, we'd like to visit on an extension," said Wright.

According to Wright, Washington weighs approximately 375 pounds. He will not have to take the Patriots' grueling running test, having already passed the Bears' conditioning run.

"People don't understand what a very good athlete Ted is," said Wright. "They see him as this big mass of a man, but he can do things on the field that just surprise you."

Washington will make $1.65 million this season, and that leaves the Patriots slightly less than $900,000 under the cap. That's counting the top 51 salaries. By the time the roster is set at 53, all players will have to be accounted for under the cap.

Washington isn't expected to see too much playing time tonight, but he'll play enough to at least see the new look against one of the best offensive lines in the game. The Eagles won't have one of their best players rushing the ball because starting running back Duce Staley is a holdout.

Staley, who is scheduled to be paid $2.2 million in the final year of his contract, is being fined $5,000 per day. There have been reports the Eagles might be trying to trade him, but so far there has been no movement.

The Patriots, who released veteran cornerback Otis Smith (still rehabilitating from pectoral muscle surgery), have decided to go with a younger secondary with rookies Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel likely to see major playing time against the Eagles' fine receivers, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash.

"We're going into their place," said linebacker Ted Johnson. "They're opening a new stadium, and we've got them again early in the season. It's an important game for a lot of reasons. If we go out there and play like we're capable of playing, that will help us when we play them in the regular season."

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