After two days of scrimmages against each other, the Saints and Patriots get started on the real thing _ well, almost _ when they meet Thursday night.
The first preseason game for both teams should have slightly more intensity than the joint workouts, but not nearly as much as a regular-season meeting. Certainly not like New Orleans’ 38-17 home win over the Patriots that lifted the Saints to 11-0 on their way to their first Super Bowl title.
Most starters will make cameo appearances at Gillette Stadium as the exhibition season kicks off in full force this weekend. Also playing Thursday night are the Carolina Panthers at the Baltimore Ravens, and the Oakland Raiders at the Dallas Cowboys.
“You never try to pick up where you left off,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We start from scratch again and I think there’s a certain path you have to take that involves a lot of hard work and study and preparation. We’re early in camp still, considering that there are still four preseason games left. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of stuff to clean up.
“But any time you begin a season, you want to start off on a good note. We were able to do that a year ago and we’ll see what we do this year.”
Payton expects the regulars to have 15 to 18 plays. It should be about the same for New England, with the intriguing possibility that star receiver Wes Welker could get on the field. He underwent surgery in February for a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been noncommittal on Welker’s availability. Just the fact he is participating regularly in training camp is particularly encouraging for New England, and Welker was involved in the scrimmaging against New Orleans.
Saints running back Reggie Bush likes the idea of working out against another team, particularly when it’s the Patriots.
“I think it’s been very beneficial, because it gives us the chance to look at a different defense and offense and go up against a different team entirely, giving us a chance to compete,” Bush said. “Some of the guys that are draft picks and undrafted free agents, it gives them an opportunity to compete and earn their spot. It was really productive at the end of the day.”
And satisfying to hear the Patriots praise his team, with several New England players saying they are trying to measure up to the Saints’ standard.
“I guess that’s a compliment seeing that an organization that we kind of want to be like with everything they’ve done in their careers is where we’re trying to get to,” Bush said, citing the Patriots’ three NFL titles in the 2000s.
No one wants to emulate the Raiders of the last decade. Oakland won the AFC title in 2002 and hasn’t been to the playoffs again, losing 83 games since that season.
But owner Al Davis is comparing new quarterback Jason Campbell to Jim Plunkett, who won two Super Bowls with the Raiders way back when. Campbell was acquired from Washington in the offseason and the Raiders cut JaMarcus Russell, the top overall draft choice in 2007.
Dallas already has been through a preseason game, a ragged 16-7 victory over Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame game. The Cowboys lost tight end John Phillips for the season in that game, and they suddenly are thin at that position with only starter Jason Witten healthy among the veterans.
Witten’s primary backup, Martellus Bennett, was held out of the preseason opener while he recovers from a sprained ankle and won’t play against Oakland.
“I always want to play, but I don’t want to go out there and mess (the ankle) up more than what it already is,” Bennett said. “What really counts is the season.”
The Ravens are being looked at as a prime contender this season in the AFC after making the playoffs as a wild card in 2009. Coach John Harbaugh has been impressed by the work of his pass rushers in training camp.
“The pass rush, especially in the red zone and in the blitz period, was really ferocious,” he said. “It’s good for our offense to see that, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it pays off in games, obviously. But right now it’s the best we’ve seen it.”
Carolina coach John Fox said 11 players wouldn’t make the trip to Baltimore, including star receiver Steve Smith, cornerback Chris Gamble and running back Jonathan Stewart. Starters are expected to play the first quarter, then Fox will have plenty of new faces to look at.
“There are probably 20-something guys I’ve never seen take a snap in NFL football,” Fox said. “You have some of those guys every year from your draft class. We just have a few more this year.”
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