FOXBOROUGH -- Just how important is a game if your best players make only a token appearance?
Extremely important, says Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Important in every aspect except winning or losing, that is.
Of course, the detail-oriented Belichick will monitor each play of tonight's exhibition game at Cincinnati, but the final score will be of little concern.
''We're evaluating a couple of things," Belichick said. ''One, individual players. Two, the combination of players and how different combinations work together. Three, [we're] evaluating where we are on our scheme and how well we're able to execute certain things. And four, we're evaluating the overall conditioning, the playing levels of obviously the individual players, and our team as a whole in preparation for the [regular-season] opener."
See, nary a mention of victory or defeat.
That doesn't mean a 31-3 stomping at the hands of the Bengals -- what the Patriots endured a year ago in an exhibition game in the Queen City -- is acceptable for the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. The coaches have often brought up that humiliation in preparation for tonight.
''They kicked our butts last year, absolutely put it on us," safety Rodney Harrison said. ''So we have something we have to prove. We have to go out there, put a game plan together, and execute offensively, defensively, and special teams-wise.
''We have to put it all together. Last year, we had a horrible showing and we can't expect to beat a very good Cincinnati team, which put up almost 500 yards of offense on us in the regular season."
With the score not that important and very few starting positions undecided -- right tackle may be the only opening that isn't injury-related -- the first team's function is to find a rhythm against unfamiliar faces, execute play calls under fire, and exit injury-free.
Many of the team's veteran stars (Tom Brady, Corey Dillon, Richard Seymour, and Harrison) could play as little as one series. And players who sat out practices this week with what Belichick announced as minor injuries (Ty Warren, Ben Watson, and P.K. Sam) will not play.
Yet there is plenty to watch for in tonight's game. Tops on that list is how the defense and offense operate with new systems, not systems as in schemes, but in operation.
For the first time since the preseason of 2002, the Patriots will play a game without Charlie Weis calling the plays. As was the case then -- with Weis recovering from surgery complications -- Belichick will take over the offense.
One thing to note is how smoothly the plays get to Brady. Barring a complete breakdown, however, play-calling should be a breeze considering the basic game planning for an exhibition.
The only time things could get hairy would be in the two-minute offense, but the quarterbacks are often more responsible for those plays than the coaching staff. Brady won't be around late in the first half, so any such mix-up would most likely be on Doug Flutie, Rohan Davey, or Matt Cassel, not Belichick or quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, who is charged with relaying the plays in to the signal-callers.
Similarly, with new coordinator Eric Mangini taking over the defense, the Patriots will have a different way of doing things. Again, because it's the first exhibition game, Mangini won't unleash too much of the Patriots' intricate schemes.
Still, with so many new faces -- particularly inside linebackers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel -- expected to see significant playing time, confusion in getting into sets would be an indicator of much work to be done.
With Sam and Bethel Johnson (foot) out, Tim Dwight has an opportunity to earn some value points at wideout. Bam Childress, who has sparkled in camp, is a long shot to make the team, but an impressive showing could earn him a look with another NFL squad.
Safeties Dexter Reid and Antuan Edwards and cornerback Hank Poteat may have the most at stake in the secondary. A poor showing could lead to an early dismissal.
Young players are typically the most interesting to watch early in the preseason. Rookie debuts include first-round draft pick Logan Mankins, who starts at right guard. Mankins has looked good thus far and would have to have a terrible preseason to lose his starting spot.
''It'll be really nice to hit someone besides the same guy every day," said Mankins, who has been nose-to-nose with Seymour since the All-Pro veteran reported to camp.
Fellow rookie lineman Nick Kaczur has made some noise at tackle, as have defensive backs Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders.
Hobbs has been used in nickel situations and could work his way into the rotation, but if he and Sanders want to impress Belichick, they should make an impact on special teams. Hobbs hopes to get a shot at kick returner, while Sanders has been involved in coverage units.
''I think that both those guys have a chance to be competitive in the kicking game," Belichick said. ''But again, the practice situation is one thing. We don't do live tackling out there."
Live play against a team in a different color jersey will probably determine the order of reserve quarterbacks.
Flutie and Davey have each looked sluggish in practice. The two should play a similar amount tonight, with Cassel, a rookie, cleaning up late.
Cassel, who spent his entire career at Southern California as a reserve, has little game experience, so some ragged play would be no surprise. The better he performs, the more pressure Flutie and Davey are under to earn the No. 2 spot.
Nervous rookies, ragged play, and extended garbage time? That's preseason in the NFL.
''We'll take what we can get out of it," Belichick said. ''It's better than practice."