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Game has meaning to some

FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick describes James Sanders as a ''professional."

That would be 21-year-old James Sanders, the rookie safety from Fresno State, and the youngest player on the two-time defending Super Bowl champions.

Whether Sanders is a star of the future for New England remains to be seen, but he has been impressive thus far. He'll be called on to contribute this season, and nights like tonight should serve to groom him for those times.

Sanders is in no jeopardy of being cut, but he's among the players expected to see plenty of action tonight, as the bottom of the roster should be on display when the Patriots host the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium in the final exhibition game for both teams.

With nothing at stake and the regular-season opener around the corner (Sept. 8 against Oakland), starters, key reserves, and many veterans stand to play little, if at all.

''I put that aside and take care of my own business," said Sanders, who is on a number of special teams units and is the second-team strong safety behind Rodney Harrison. ''I leave that to the coaches; it's their job to worry about that.

''My goal is to, honestly, just go out there, work hard with every opportunity I get, and improve as much as possible. I'm excited to play whenever I get the opportunity."

Belichick sat all his starters -- save for kicker Adam Vinatieri, punter Josh Miller, and long snapper Lonie Paxton -- in last year's exhibition finale. The coach hasn't divulged his intentions for tonight, but the risk of playing top players far outweighs the reward.

''Well, I've told everybody to be ready to go," Belichick said. ''I'm sure that we'll look at some of the players that didn't play as much in the Green Bay game a little bit more against the Giants, and try to get the best evaluation that we can as we make our final decisions at the end of the week.

''I'm sure that the younger players and the guys, not necessarily younger, who didn't play as much against Green Bay will play more than the ones who did play quite a bit against Green Bay. Let's put it that way."

In other words, junk last week's game plan against the Packers. The Patriots have 70 players on the roster (not including two on the physically unable to perform list and another on injured reserve), and must be down to 53 by Sunday.

For players whose positions on the roster are a bit tenuous (for example, Jed Weaver, David Terrell, and P.K. Sam), tonight's game is the last opportunity to impress enough to earn a spot on the team.

For Sanders, a fourth-round draft pick, it's another chance to get better. Reading plays is an area he points to in which he needs to improve.

Adjusting to the NFL game has been a challenging test, particularly with Belichick, a former secondary coach, and Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, likewise a former secondary coach, doing the grading.

''Sometimes I get a little overaggressive," Sanders said. ''You have to find a little midrange sometimes between being too aggressive and not being passive.

''In college, you just play. You're so used to that level of play, you just go out there and do your thing. If you make a mistake, most of the time you can make up for it. At this level you can't make up for it if you make a mistake. You have to be patient and let the game come to you."

Indications are that all Sanders needs is time and repetitions to become a factor. He should get plenty against the Giants. But with so many cuts to be made, the game isn't just about helping young players prepare for the season.

Belichick would have liked to have had his roster pared entering the contest, but he said some decisions could come down to the last minute.

As do most coaches, Belichick puts more stock in game play than practice performance, but this week his staff faces a unique situation in that with the regular season a week away, cuts and homework to get ready for the Raiders have to be done at the same time.

Because of the Thursday night kickoff to the season, New England and Oakland will have six days of preparation for the opener, while other teams have at least eight days from the last preseason game to the beginning of the regular season.

''We'll have to either make the roster moves and then start the preparations, or start the preparations and then have the roster moves somewhere intermingled in there a little bit with what would be our normal practice week," Belichick said.

The decisions that haven't been made make tonight's game important.

With Andre Davis joining the team last week, Terrell and Sam may be competing for one spot. Weaver has fallen behind Christian Fauria at tight end, but with solid play tonight he has an outside shot at convincing the coaches that a fourth tight end is necessary, or more likely, opening the door for his return later in the year.

Young linebackers Eric Alexander, Wesly Mallard, Andre Torrey, and Grant Steen are hoping to squeeze into perhaps a single spot.

So, while the outcome of the game means little, there is plenty at stake.

''You can't worry about it," said Terrell, who doesn't have a reception during the preseason. ''That's out of your control.

''All you can do is play, and see what happens."

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