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Different beat sans the ring

FOXBOROUGH -- The last time we saw the New England Patriots on television was eight months ago when they were thrashed by the Denver Broncos, 27-13, in their second playoff game of the 2005 season. The loss snapped an NFL record 10-game winning streak in the playoffs and humbled Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the rest of Patriot Nation.

It was somewhat shocking. Undefeated playoff performer Tom Brady threw two interceptions. Troy Brown fumbled. The Patriots turned the ball over five times and Adam Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal attempt.

Eight months later, Vinatieri is gone, Willie McGinest is gone, Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch is holding out, and Tedy Bruschi is recovering from wrist surgery as the Patriots return to the field tonight (8, Channel 4) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in their 2006 exhibition opener.

The timing is perfect. When the Patriots folded in January, we noted ``pitchers and catchers report Feb. 18," and now the Patriots are kicking off at the same time the Red Sox are free falling in the American League East. There must be a sports god.

Brady says he hasn't forgotten the way things ended in the Mile High City.

``That will stick with me until we kick off again," said the clutch QB. (Come to think of it, Tom was drafted as a catcher by the Expos when he was in high school -- think he could spell Javy Lopez when the Yankees come to town?)

``This is a chance for us to see where we're at," said Brady. ``It's one thing to do everything in practice, but we always want to start up against other opponents."

``This will be the first time putting on the pads since Denver," added All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour. ``It's definitely a little different. It's a new season now, everyone's 0-0. That's the good part. We have another opportunity to do some great things this season. Hopefully, we can get it down this time."

We all know the drill too well. Exhibition football games are a consumer rip-off on par with cinema concessions. Veterans play gingerly to avoid getting hurt, and guys on the bubble bust their butts to make an impression. Coaching staffs make moves to see things that will help in the games that count. Nobody cares about winning. You can be sure the ever-paranoid Belichick won't be showing off any trick plays tonight.

(For those who think we exaggerate the Patriots' paranoia/self-importance, check out the Patriots' doorstop, 500-page ``media guide"; try to find out what happened to Rodney Harrison last year. Harrison's six-page bio contains no information regarding the three knee ligaments he tore in Pittsburgh last September. It read, ``placed on injured reserve (9/25/05) and Pittsburgh (9/25) Started at safety . . . collected one tackle before leaving the game in the first quarter." This would be like reading a summary of Tony Conigliaro's 1967 season and finding, ``Hit 20 homers through Aug. 18, then spent the rest of the season on the disabled list after facing Jack Hamilton in a victory over the Angels.")

Patriots fans will get a look at old friend Lawyer Milloy in a Falcons uniform for the first time. It'll also be a test for New England linemen to see if they can catch up to Atlanta's mobile quarterback, Michael Vick. Nobody's going to have to worry about Georgia heat in August. The Dome supplies climate control that hasn't been available in Foxborough.

New England fans look forward to their first glimpse of the team's first-round pick, running back Laurence Maroney. The kid from the University of Minnesota is auditioning for Corey Dillon's job and had better hope none of the Falcons attempt to bring him down by his hair (Maroney's got the Manny hair). Meanwhile, Kevin Faulk is still chugging along and should get some carries.

It'll be interesting to watch the kickoff-bakeoff unfold. With Vinatieri gone to the Colts, veteran Martin Gramatica and rookie Stephen Gostkowski are jousting for the right to split the uprights.

With Branch holding out and rookie Chad Jackson out with a hamstring injury, old faithful Troy Brown is likely to have some passes thrown his way. Reche Caldwell -- who sounds like he should be playing left wing for the Canadiens -- might be the Patriots' primary receiver in this one. Brady backup Matt Cassel no doubt will be making many of the throws.

Harrison, returning from surgery on his left knee (don't check the media guide if you want to know how that happened), is unlikely to play. Meanwhile, Bruschi's absence might prompt Belichick to take a look at a 4-3 defensive alignment.

Center Dan Koppen, expected to play for the first time since injuring his shoulder at Miami in November, said, ``It's a time for us to get used to hitting guys again."

And a time for New England sports fans to look away from the reeling Red Sox for a night.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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