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Preseason Week 3: Patriots vs. Washington, 8 p.m.

Pre Week 3 Considered Final Tuneup

Preseason Week 3 is traditionally considered the final dress rehearsal for the regular season. Preseason Week 4 is reserved for the reserves as teams try desperately to avoid injuries to key starters.

So tonight, the Deion Branch-less New England Patriots host their final preseason game against the Washington Redskins. This will be a good test for this chameleon offense, facing the defense of a team that comes from what many expect to be the toughest division in the 2006 NFL.

This could be the most unpredictable offense I remember. Everyone has been talking about the Patriots' smash-mouth appearance, multiple legitimate running backs, a solid defense anchored by one of the best lines in the game. The lack of Branch has misled many experts to discount the passing game.

Big mistake.

After last week's dismantling of the Arizona Cardinals, I read seemingly countless analysis about the "new" running game, and how Laurence Maroney brings another dimension to the offense, and how the passing game is suffering. Yet, the Patriots ran more passing plays than running plays, and Tom Brady was 15 of 20 passing for 149 yards, connecting, as usual, with several receivers.

They made the Cardinals defense look pretty silly, which is no real great task, but pretty impressive in just week 2 of the preseason. It certainly didn't look to me like the passing game was defunct.

The defense was stellar, despite still missing most of its leaders. That may be even more impressive with all the expectations in Arizona, what with Kurt Warner and Edgerrin James and the rest on what the experts say is a dangerous offense.

So what do I expect tonight?

Well, more of the same. But there will be a few pretty major changes: Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, all of whom are expected to play tonight.

It's hard to say how much they'll play, or what they will look like. My eye will be on Harrison as much as TV coverage allows. Remember, the Redskin receivers have played two preseason games and will no doubt be closer to regular season shape, so I expect it will be a challenge for Harrison to keep up.

The return of Seymour, as I said when he came back last season, helps not just the defensive line by the linebackers (by controlling an extra blocker on running plays) and the defensive backfield (by putting greater pressure on the quarterback.

With that in mind, the official arrival of Seau impacts the linebackers while they await the return of a healthy Tedy Bruschi. Seau allows the Pats to maintain their 3-4 defense and not be desperate to shift Mike Vrabel and others out of their customary positions.

Tonight will also be more of a real test for Maroney. Defenses will be playing closer to full speed, and so we'll see if Maroney is making similar progress or if he's just a rookie who had a couple good weeks. And we'll see if Corey Dillon is still feeling the heat and added competition from Maroney's previous performances.

I'd expect the Patriots to force this situation if not for the absence of Branch -- who, by the way, I think will remain with the Patriots in the long run (more on that in another post). With Branch now seeking a trade, Brady has to forget he exists and concentrate on (as Bill Belichick says) "the players who are here."

The receiving corps isn't as weak as most people seem to think. Bam Childress certainly showed potential late last year, and he's looked good this preseason. Reche Caldwell has had the opportunity to show that he was undervalued in San Diego. Troy Brown is still reliable, if a little older and slower. Chad Jackson remains the wild card.

It would be nice to see this second-rounder step up. He's not dressed for tonight's game, and his status is somewhat mysterious.

Plus, you still have Maroney, Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass who have great hands coming out of the backfield.

And then you have tight end Ben Watson. If you're not convinced he's Ben Coates incarnate, you have the talent recognition skills of Ron Borges. Daniel Graham is no slouch either.

Incidentally, I don't remember Branch being the greatest thing since Al Gore invented the Internet until after he was Super Bowl MVP and had a pretty decent season last year. Now he's discussed as indespensible. And all this coming after several years of the experts saying the Patriots have never really had any good receivers since Terry Glenn was supposed to be great.

Brady has always been able to find the open receiver, and he'll continue to do so, no matter who those recivers are. The Patriots have never relied on one guy to make all the catches (well, at least since Brady got here). But tonight will go a ways to showing who his future favorites could be.

Finally, now that Martin Gramatica has packed his bags, The Great (Stephen) Gostkowski can concentrate on playing instead of competing and help us start forgetting Automatic Adam, that traitor.