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Patriots narrowing the field

This one is almost for real. At least it's as close to real as things will get before the Patriots open the regular season against Oakland Sept. 8 at Gillette Stadium.

New England has an exhibition game scheduled next week, but tonight's contest at Green Bay is likely to be the last tuneup for most of its starters.

With that in mind, coach Bill Belichick has implemented a fairly complete game plan -- something he didn't do for the first two preseason contests -- and operated this week as he would for a regular-season game.

Belichick says he won't see what his squad is made of until some six weeks into the regular season, but this visit to Lambeau Field should provide a glimpse into the future.

''This is our best opportunity to pull everything together in terms of substitution, communication, execution, playing on the road, playing in a hostile environment, all of those kinds of things," Belichick said. ''It's an opportunity for us to pull all of that together against a good team, a proficient team.

''Offensively, it's a record-setting type of team, and defensively, with the scheme and a system that the Packers are running this year [under former Dolphins defensive coordinator Jim Bates], it's one that we are very familiar with and have certainly been challenged by on a regular basis playing against the Dolphins. All of those planets are kind of colliding here."

Belichick hasn't found the cosmos in his team's practice and game performance. The offense has been spotty and the defense gave up 37 points and 400 yards at home against the Saints last Friday.

Quarterback Tom Brady has acknowledged difficulty finding a flow.

''In a lot of ways, we're still trying to figure out what we do well," Brady said. ''The thing about training camp is there's so many guys trying to find a spot, often times they're in different roles and you're running different plays.

''This week you're really trying to narrow in on the things that you think you can execute against what this defense does in particular. It's nice to have a set list of plays you're working from instead of the entire playbook."

Andre Davis might not know all that the Patriots are doing, but he'll play anyway. The fourth-year receiver, acquired Monday in a trade with Cleveland, begins his short-term audition for the third receiver spot tonight after cramming to decipher the playbook.

''I think that Andre has worked hard," Belichick said. ''He's certainly shown the ability and the capacity to learn and to absorb more plays and more learning.

''I think for the short time that he's been here he's certainly given us every indication that he'll be able to get out there and participate [tonight]."

Thanks to his speed and experience (21.3-yard career kick return average), expect to see Davis on kick returns as well. With Bethel Johnson still hurt (foot surgery), rookie Ellis Hobbs, who had a 53-yard return against the Saints, may have moved up to first-team return man opposite Kevin Faulk, but Davis will get an opportunity.

Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, who has sat out both exhibition contests though he wasn't injured, should play tonight.

Look for the Patriots to get the ball to tight end Benjamin Watson. He didn't play in the opener and did not have a catch against New Orleans, though Brady threw an interception that was intended for him.

Expect a good dose of Corey Dillon, with the Patriots trying to display a balanced attack and put together a couple of extended drives that would open up the playbook for Brady.

Last week, New England ran five or fewer plays on three of the four possessions with Brady on the field. According to Brady, the first-play interception and a 45-yard Tim Dwight reception on the next possession made it ''hard to really establish a lot of consistency offensively."

Belichick did not indicate how he would use his quarterbacks, although Doug Flutie and Rohan Davey should sub for Brady, with rookie Matt Cassel playing late, if at all.

Defensively, the Patriots have allowed 196 rushing yards (on 42 carries) in the first half of their two games. Belichick has downplayed the statistics, but he has challenged his players to do better against Green Bay, which finished in the top 10 in rushing last season.

Defensive end Ty Warren will play, giving the Patriots their starting defensive front for the first time this summer, which should ease the pressure on linebackers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel.

With tight competition in the secondary, Belichick might do more situational substitutions to evaluate players in particular schemes, but the starting defensive unit could be on the field for three quarters.

''Regardless of what happens, we're still going to have a lot of work to do and we still have further to go," Belichick said. ''We're not going to get everything done in one game, or in one half, or whatever it ends up being [for the starters]."

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