FOXBOROUGH -- This isn't exactly a dress rehearsal, what with the actual performance more than three months away.
But tonight's game between the Patriots and New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium isn't your standard exhibition. When two teams that have an honest-to-goodness football game scheduled in November meet in a glorified practice in August, the imitation game has a bit more value.
As the Patriots' defenders look to find cohesiveness after major offseason losses, they can throw away most of what they saw last week in Cincinnati -- the Bengals aren't on New England's 2005 regular-season schedule. But the Saints' Deuce McAllister will be on display at Gillette Nov. 20.
''You put a lot more time in on the personnel," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of preparing for a preseason game against a regular-season opponent. ''You really break down the strengths and weaknesses and tendencies of personnel, whether it be their stance or alignment, or inside technique, outside technique. More specifically how they do the things that they do."
Belichick and his staff should get a good look at what New Orleans has for personnel, as Saints coach Jim Haslett says his starters should play into the third quarter.
''It was something we wanted to do to get a lot of work early in camp and back off as we go because of injuries and the people we were playing," Haslett said after practice Tuesday. ''We just feel like we have a new [offensive] line, and we want to get Deuce a lot of work. We've got some new guys on defense, so we want to get the cohesiveness down as fast as we can."
Though Belichick said there was no agreement between he and Haslett to play starters into the second half, the opportunity to get a good look at his front-line players against the Saints is probably tempting.
''For a team like New Orleans, we want to be prepared from a team standpoint, to understand all of the things they do as a team, and what their team tendencies are -- what coverages they like to run in certain situations, what fronts and what blitzes they like to use in certain situations, what plays they would call . . . by down and distance and formation and all those things," Belichick said. ''But then specifically, how are we going to play [receiver] Joe Horn, [cornerback Mike] McKenzie, [defensive end] Charles Grant, [defensive tackle Johnathan] Sullivan, and [center] LeCharles Bentley?
''That gets very specific to each of those players, and we're going to be seeing them again."
Despite his team's depth, Belichick would like to see the matchups of his starters against Haslett's starters as long as possible. But with a host of day-to-day injuries, New England's depth has taken a hit, and the team isn't in a position to risk too many players in a meaningless game.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel, defensive end Ty Warren, and cornerback Randall Gay -- all starters -- are out with injuries, as are about a dozen other Patriots.
With Vrabel's ankle injury, free agent signee Monty Beisel gets the start. He had a couple of nice plays against Cincinnati in his first experience at inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but offensive linemen pushed him around a couple of times as well.
New Orleans doesn't have a power running game, but McAllister is a tough inside runner and difficult to bring down. He ran the ball nine times in the Saints' exhibition opener against Seattle, and Haslett indicated he'll see the ball more against the Patriots.
Offensively, the Patriots should look more like the squad that will begin the season than they did at Cincinnati in a 23-13 win. Several offensive players who sat out the opener, including receivers Troy Brown and Deion Branch, will be in the lineup.
Most significantly, quarterback Tom Brady will dress for a game for the first time since the Super Bowl. Brady says he has been brought along slowly in training camp practices so as to not overwork his arm, but he is eager to see game action.
The Patriots' offense has looked sluggish at times in practice, with Brady in and out of workouts and not as precise as normal, and the reserve quarterbacks being erratic.
''I'm excited to get out there," Brady said. ''It's been awhile since I played a game.
''There's just improvement that you try to make throughout the camp. It's about really improving all parts of the game and trying to be more efficient on offense.
''Some of these teams that have these great offenses that score all these points, throw for all these yards and run the ball well -- the Chiefs and the Colts come to mind -- ultimately you'd like to be one of those very, very good offenses. We've been kind of inconsistent throughout camp."
Depending on the number of possessions, expect Brady and Doug Flutie to lead the Patriots through at least three quarters, with Rohan Davey and possibly rookie Matt Cassel mopping up.
An area to watch is special teams, as Belichick sees tonight's game as an opportunity to gauge his team's improvement.
''Last year they had the player of the week on special teams four straight weeks," Belichick said of the Saints. ''They really have a lot of good players and they're very well coached. They're really pretty good at everything."
Due to the circumstances, Belichick hopes his squad is good at watching and learning, even if there will be some time before the real demonstration of the lessons learned.
''It's like playing a division team twice during the regular season," he said. ''You play them the first time and you certainly learn a lot about that team. You play them the second time and it's still a different game, but you just have more of familiarity with that opponent than somebody you haven't played in two or three years."