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Patriots at Redskins, 8 p.m., Ch. 4

Patriots regulars face third and go

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 28, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - This time it matters. Well, it matters as much as any oxymoronic NFL exhibition game possibly can matter.

Convalescing quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots play exhibition No. 3 tonight against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. When it comes to the preseason, it doesn’t get any closer to regular-season feel than the third game because the fourth is simply about avoiding injuries.

It’s kind of like the off-Broadway debut of a promising play. The quality of the performance is not as vital as it is for the real thing, but if the performance is lacking, you’re left with some lingering doubts about whether you’re ready for opening night.

That’s why the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick took a regular-season approach to preparing for tonight’s game and will also take a different approach to doling out playing time.

If you want to catch all of Brady and the starters, don’t click away at halftime because, with the regular-season opener against Buffalo Sept. 14 just 17 days away, it’s likely the top units will see some second-half action.

Brady is 14 of 23 for 157 yards with two touchdowns and an interception during the preseason as he returns from torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. Although much was made of Brady absorbing a few hits for the first time in his comeback last Thursday against the Bengals, he only played the first quarter and quarterbacked two series in the 7-6 loss.

The last time Brady, who didn’t see any preseason action in 2008, played in the pivotal third exhibition game was in 2007, against the Carolina Panthers. He played into the third quarter and was 17 of 22 for 167 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. Brady guided the Patriots for six possessions in that game. That’s the same number of total series he has played in the 2009 preseason.

“Well, I think we know we’re going to play quite a bit,’’ said Brady, when asked about tonight’s game. “That’s traditionally what we’ve always done and that’s what we’re all expecting to do. When you’re out there in the third preseason game you’re through the early phases of training camp where you made a lot of those mistakes. Now, you’re hopefully starting to really get ready for the opener.’’

Part of getting ready for the regular season is getting into a regular-season routine, which means Belichick had players review the opponent scouting reports, watch film cut-ups of keys to the game, and emphasized Washington’s tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. Running back Kevin Faulk said the team looked at more tape this week than it did before its first two exhibition games and that there was more focus on understanding the opponent.

“You’re not in a two-a-days schedule anymore so you have time to watch film on the opponent you’re playing,’’ said Brady. “It’s very much like a normal week for us here in terms of the schedule and film study. I think that is how Coach Belichick wanted to approach it this week.’’

Belichick was already in regular-season form when he opened a news conference this week with a glowing assessment of the Redskins.

He said the Redskins are as talented on defense as any team the Patriots will see all season. Washington boasts players such as defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, middle linebacker London Fletcher - whom Belichick called a tackling machine - safety LaRon Landry, and cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Carlos Rogers.

Belichick praised Washington’s offense and playmakers such as running back Clinton Portis, tight end Chris Cooley, and wide receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El.

Although Belichick spoke of the Redskins reverentially - the way he does every regular-season opponent - it was obvious he relished the challenge.

“[We’re] on the road, and we’ll get a good evaluation of how things are coming together for us, and where we’re at physically, and where we’re at competitively, against a quality team,’’ said Belichick. “This will be a good situation for us to go into and we’re looking forward to it.’’

Belichick has worked his team hard during preseason with a training camp geared toward getting the players to come out of the gate with alacrity. Coming off a languorous 7-6 loss to the Bengals last Thursday, the Patriots need to rebound with a good performance, even if it is just the preseason.

Commissioner Roger Goodell and the football cognoscenti can debate the merits of having four exhibition games or expanding the regular season. However, the preseason does serve a purpose right now for the Patriots.

Practice might make perfect, but it alone doesn’t make NFL teams or players ready for the regular season.

“I think once you get into those games it’s a different tempo,’’ said Brady. “So, the more games we can play in the better as far as I’m concerned for me and for my teammates so that you can understand where you’re at.

“That’s the reason for the preseason games. You really get a measure of where you’re at as a team because you’re competing against another team and you want to see how you stack up and how you’ve been practicing, because there is not a lot of evidence when you’re out there on the practice field. You got to put it to use.

“This will be a really important step for us. We’ll get a really good idea of where we’re at as a team after this game.’’

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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