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Patriots 27, Giants 20

Final rehearsal for these role players

Backups fill bill for Patriots

With the preseason over, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Tedy Bruschi can now look toward the season opener Sept. 9. With the preseason over, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Tedy Bruschi can now look toward the season opener Sept. 9. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH - The New York Giants, the Patriots' opponent in their final exhibition game, once shared the Polo Grounds with their baseball namesakes, who now reside in San Francisco. Last night, the two teams turned Gillette Stadium into the Proving Grounds for NFL hopefuls.

In what amounted to a 60-minute job fair, the Patriots downed the Giants, 27-20, to finish the preseason with a 2-2 record for the third straight year.

But what most might call a meaningless exhibition game was played with regular-season intensity by those trying to survive the final cuts, which are due tomorrow at 4 p.m. That's why Patriots fourth-string quarterback Matt Gutierrez jumped for joy after he completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Bam Childress with 2:54 left to seal the win in front of a smattering of diehard fans who numbered far less than the listed attendance of 68,756.

"Definitely, yeah, that last preseason game you're not only auditioning for your team, you're auditioning for the other 31 teams in the league who look at the film and evaluate players," said Patriots linebacker Eric Alexander, who got the start and led New England with 13 tackles and recorded a half-sack.

Most who saw significant playing time will be distant memories when the teams meet again in the regular-season finale at Giants Stadium Dec. 29. If you were looking for Tom Brady, Laurence Maroney, or Tedy Bruschi, you had to keep your eyes focused on the sideline, which is where they were - safe and sound. Coach Bill Belichick was taking no chances before the opener Sept. 9 against the other New York team, the Jets. Although the Patriots did suffer an injury, as rookie linebacker Oscar Lua left seven plays in after hurting his right knee.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning made a one-series cameo, going 5 for 8 for 58 yards and leading New York into the end zone on an 8-minute-13-second, 16-play opening drive against a Patriots defense full of reserves. First-round pick Brandon Meriweather and second-year man Willie Andrews started at safety in place of Rodney Harrison (likely resting) and Eugene Wilson, who was hurt against Carolina last Friday.

The New England backups staged a goal-line stand, stopping the Giants three times from the 1, before Brandon Jacobs broke through to put New York on top, 7-0.

When the Patriots' offense took the field, led by backup quarterback Matt Cassel, the only players who joined the huddle who could be considered regulars were running back Heath Evans and Ryan O'Callaghan, whose presence merely cemented the fact that he is running behind Nick Kaczur for the starting right tackle spot.

That group got on the board with 38 seconds left in the first quarter when Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 37-yard field goal. It was the longest field goal this preseason for Gostkowski, who entered the game just 3 for 6. The second-year placekicker also attempted a 56-yarder right before the half, but it was blocked. He later hit a 23-yard field goal that gave the Patriots a 20-13 lead with 5:08 left in the fourth.

New England led, 10-7, at the half. In the second quarter, Cassel (10 of 14 for 99 yards) directed a 13-play, 87-yard march on his final series. Evans, who has one career regular-season touchdown, scored his fourth of the preseason on a 1-yard dive with 6:42 left.

On the opening possession of the second half, Vinny Testaverde, who took over for Cassel with 5:15 left in the first half, guided the Patriots to pay dirt for his first time in the preseason. Testaverde was 4 of 4 for 61 yards on the drive, which ended when rookie running back Quinton Smith burrowed into the end zone from the 1.

Testaverde, who finished 7 of 11 for 99 yards and one interception, said he felt satisfied with his performance. He found the speed of the game manageable. "Hopefully, I won't have to, but if I had to get in there and play during the season, I feel like I'll be ready," said the 43-year-old quarterback.

The Giants got within 17-13 when they converted a fumble by Marcellus Rivers, who had five catches for 47 yards against his former team, into a 43-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal with 12:06 left.

It could have been more if veteran Dante Wesley, who got the start at corner, didn't bat away a potential touchdown pass from a pair of Giants players with New England connections - quarterback Tim Hasselbeck (Boston College) and wide receiver Brandon London (UMass).

Belichick said he was pleased with the effort.

"We got a look at a lot of our young players tonight," he said. "They got a lot of extensive playing time. I really respect the way they played. I thought they competed well. It wasn't perfect, by any means, but it was certainly competitive. I thought we had a lot of guys play well."

But very few of those guys will be playing Sept. 9, when the season kicks off for real.

"It's all about the Jets now from this moment forward," said Testaverde.

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