EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- End the preseason nonsense. It's time for the real thing.
On a night when the running game was a top priority, the Patriots couldn't get out of first gear and were stomped by the Giants in a 19-14 loss. When it mattered, they tried to run the ball and didn't get far. When it mattered, they tried to stop the run and got run over.
So, what does it mean?
Preseason football seldom, if ever, provides the answer. So bring on the regular season.
Only then, after four lackluster weeks of preseason play, will the following question be answered: Can a team look lifeless through much of the preseason, post an 0-4 record without its top quarterback, and turn it on in time for the Sept. 7 season opener against Kansas City?
We'll soon find out.
As safety John Lynch pointed out last week, there are plenty of examples in which teams went winless in the preseason, then stormed out of the gates on a long winning streak in the regular season. And vice versa.
So, just as football consumers might think long and hard about attending an exhibition game -- Giants Stadium was barely three-quarters full -- they should also think twice about reading too much into preseason results.
"Once the season starts, it's a whole new ballgame; we know that," coach Bill Belichick said. "What counts is how you play in the regular season. That's what matters. It doesn't mean that the individual performances and group performances and how you execute plays isn't important. It is important, and that leads to your execution at a later point in time, but I'd say that's what you gain from preseason."
The fourth exhibition game, in particular, generally is one in which both teams are looking to escape healthy, and in that case, both teams won. The defending champion Giants, who open their season Thursday against the Redskins, didn't play quarterback Eli Manning, receiver Plaxico Burress, and defensive end Justin Tuck.
The Patriots played without a spark last night, which is pretty much the way they've played throughout the preseason. Once again, they put up little resistance on an opponents' opening drive, surrendering points for the fourth straight game (two touchdowns, two field goals).
Most glaring were struggles in the running game, Brandon Jacobs ripping off a 19-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, powering through the right side, and racing past diving linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Jacobs, a load at 6 feet 4 inches, 264 pounds, was hardly touched.
That set a tone for most of the night, which was reinforced when the Giants capped their 80-yard drive with tight end Darcy Johnson scoring on a 24-yard catch-and-run from David Carr on which Patriots safety James Sanders missed an open-field tackle and cornerback Fernando Bryant's weak tackle attempt had him backpedaling into the end zone from about the 5-yard line.
The Patriots, whose first units played two series apiece, were headed backward most of the night, the goal of generating positive momentum heading into the regular season not accomplished.
So again, the question is this: Can the Patriots simply turn it on when it counts?
And will quarterback Tom Brady, who has yet to throw a pass in an exhibition game, pick up where he left off from his 2007 record-setting campaign?
Brady-less once again, the Patriots tried to get running back Laurence Maroney going early, opening the game with a running formation featuring two tight ends. It seemed like a sound plan, given that the offensive line had most of its primary parts together for the first time this preseason, with Matt Light back at left tackle.
But they hardly shifted out of first gear.
The struggles were highlighted late in the second quarter when, at the goal line, the Patriots couldn't pound it in and quarterback Matt Gutierrez ended up lofting a soft pass to receiver Chad Jackson - who fell - that was intercepted.
"No concerns," said Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green, one of the bright spots last night (two tackles, one sack). "We had our problems, but preseason is behind us now. We're moving forward to KC."
So what does it all mean?
We'll find out Sept. 7.
Bring on the real games, because the last four were a bit harsh on the eyes.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.