FOXBOROUGH -- The Carolina Panthers already have played their big preseason game. Now the New England Patriots will play theirs.
The third exhibition game usually is the one in which game-planning for the opponent and playing time for regulars increase. But the Panthers had only four days to prepare between last Sunday night's 28-16 win over the Kansas City Chiefs and Friday night's game against the Patriots.
It "would have been more important," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said, "but because of the short week, we treated the second game as the big week. We went through full game- planning against Kansas City and played the starters longer than normal."
Still, Rivera expects to use his starters, including quarterback Cam Newton, for 30-35 plays, or about half the game.
"They are still going to get some good reps and I hope we can get a good two-minute drill in the first half," Rivera said.
The Patriots had the usual time to get ready after beating the Philadelphia Eagles 42-35 last Friday night. Tom Brady completed 8 of 10 passes for 81 yards in two series after sitting out the preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. Both games followed joint practices between the teams.
"We didn't do a lot [of opponent study] leading up to those two [games] because we figured the three days of practice would get us familiar enough," Brady said. "This week has been much more like a normal week. We've had scouting report meetings and have talked about coverages and blitzes and third downs and red areas and two-minute [situations] and all the different situations that come up.
Brady is expected to play at least the first half.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is likely to sit out his third straight game as he continues his comeback from knee surgery. For the first time since the operation in January, he took part in 11-on-11 practice drills with light contact this week. He said he plans to play all 16 regular-season games.
"The more that he's able to do and help us, the better we're going to be," Brady said.
Until then, Brady's main targets will be his wide receivers. Brandon LaFell is the only key newcomer to that group and will be facing the team he caught a career-high 49 passes for last season.
"I tell everybody the same story, man," LaFell said. Newton "has everything you wish for in a football player. He's got size, he's got speed, he's got his ability, toughness. He can do it all."
But maybe not as much running as in his first three seasons when he rushed for 2,032 yards and 28 touchdowns.
"If we can use our backs effectively enough where he we don't have to rely on him running, we would certainly much rather do that," Rivera said.
A healthy Jonathan Stewart would be a huge help.
After offseason foot surgery, he ran for two touchdowns against Kansas City. Injuries limited him to 516 yards rushing and one touchdown in 15 games the past two seasons after he ran for 3,500 yards and 26 touchdowns in his previous four.
The Panthers will face a Patriots defense that improved with the addition of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and the recovery of linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly from injuries that sidelined them most of last season.
Mayo didn't practice last week or play against Philadelphia, but wouldn't give a reason.
"I feel good," he said Tuesday, although it was unknown whether he would play against Carolina.
The Panthers' defense, anchored by linebacker Luke Kuechly, allowed the second-fewest yards last season.
"I think it will be a good test for our defense because we're going against one of the all-time best quarterbacks," Rivera said.
And Brady expects a tough test against the Panthers.
"We're going to have to come out and play really well and have the right plays on at the right time," he said.