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Preseason Week 1: Patriots @ Atlanta, 8 p.m.

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Truly Meaningless? Not Quite
What and Who To Watch

Ah, the first preseason game of the, um, season. These games are all totally useless, right?

Well, not exactly.

I can't say we'll get a lot out of tonight's game, but the coaches and the players will. Maybe even more than past years, because this year, as I've mentioned a few times, the New England Patriots aren't playing any teams during the preseason that they are scheduled to play during the regular season. That means there's no reason to hold back part of your future game plan.

Not that that there's much of a game plan tonight. But since you don't need to really hide anything, you can let the players you want to take a look at do things you might really want them to do -- should any of them make the team. That's a good thing, a luxury the Patriots haven't been able to afford the last few years, and all the more important with so many players coming off injuries.

There will be three players I'll be watching as closely as possible: quarterback Matt Cassel and kickers Martin Gramatica and Stephen Gostkowski.

Cassel is Tom Brady's backup. Of course we hope we won't need to see much of him during the regular season, but it would be nice to know what to expect. I think Cassel is being unfairly shortchanged by just about everyone. He's very much in the same mold as Brady, and he's probably been watching Brady closely and learning a whole lot. And let's remember that no one had any faith in Brady when he stepped onto the field the first time. So let's give the kid a chance and see what he can do, huh?

The real spectacle -- if you can call it a spectacle. Let me rephrase, the one topic the broadcasters will harp on incessantly tonight is "Who will replace Adam Vinatieri?" Like whoever calls the game will have any clue what he's talking about. "Oh, and Vinatieri made an onside kick to last nights exhibition between Indianapolis and St. Louis to start the game, and he made a long field goal, and he's such a hero in New England, and whatever will the Patriots do?"

They'll do what they do every time they lose someone like Adam Vinatieri, or Ty Law, or Lawyer Milloy, or Damien Woody, or ...

You get the idea.

Anyway, I'll be watching those two. Having not seen a thing of either one of them yet, I'm expecting good things from Gostkowski.

I'll also try to be watching the play of the inside linebackers, as much as horrible preseason network broadcasts allow. I'm really getting tired of the way the zoom in camera angles so close you can see nose hairs. It's doesn't lend itself well to full-field analysis. Never mind the fact that they miss a quarter of the action anyway. That's one reason I really love going to the stadium, despite the impossibility to get tickets and the exorbitant prices and other costs otherwise.

But this is preseason, and the prospects of driving to Foxboro at $3 a gallon, plus tickets, plus parking are not too inviting.

Besides, these games are meaningless.