1. Extended look at the starters: With Panthers coach Ron Rivera saying he plans to play his top players 30-35 plays, and quarterback Tom Brady relaying that Bill Belichick told players to expect a heavy workload, this is as close to a regular-season feel as one can get in the preseason. Brady pointed out this week that the Patriots have been crunched in the third preseason game in two of the past three years, both against the Lions. He would like to see a better performance, and a Panthers team traveling on a short week after playing Sunday sets up nicely for New England.
2. More clarity on backup quarterback? In last Friday's preseason game against the Eagles, rookie Jimmy Garoppolo was brought in before No. 2 signal-caller Ryan Mallett. Our sense was that it was just a case of the coaching staff wanting to see how Garoppolo responded against top-level competition. Garoppolo fared well, so what now? Mallett also played well last week, and perhaps tonight provides some more clarity as to how the Patriots are layering their quarterback depth chart behind Brady.
3. Eyes on Boyce and other perceived bubble players: Is a player like receiver Josh Boyce, the 2013 fourth-round pick out of Texas Christian, really on the roster bubble? On a night when top players are expected to receive significant playing time, we'll be watching closely to see how much time Boyce gets early in the game, both at receiver and as a kickoff returner. At receiver, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Brandon LaFell look to be decisively ahead of him on the depth chart. At kickoff returner, rookie running back Roy Finch has mostly assumed that role through two preseason games.