FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Tom Brady left the practice field Wednesday and for the first time this season, strode through the locker room to the media room podium rather than making the short jaunt to the sideline to address reporters.
The New England Patriots quarterback hardly minds the extra steps.
It signals the end of training camp and joint practices, and means the barometer that is the third preseason game finally has arrived, with the regular season looming around the corner.
But even the face of the franchise has no idea how much time he'll spend on the field Friday night against the Carolina Panthers.
''He told us we're going to get a lot of work. What that means, I don't know. I don't think anyone ever knows with him,'' Brady joked of coach Bill Belichick. ''But we'll be prepared, ready to go for 60 minutes, and hopefully it's a good 60 minutes.
''Hopefully we're in good enough condition to play a half, hopefully we play a lot more than that. But it will be good to see where we're at.''
After watching the preseason opener against Washington from the sideline, Brady got his first taste of game action last Friday night in a 42-35 victory over Philadelphia. He played two series and went 8 of 10 for 81 yards with a touchdown and an interception returned for a touchdown.
It's all a process, though, a building block, as Brady likes to put it.
With only 16 or so practices under their belts, and maybe a dozen in pads, it's too early for any team to gauge where it's at or how much progress has been made.
''I think the coaching, the mental toughness, the discipline, the work ethic, those things don't pay off in September. When you really see them is December,'' Brady explained. ''You're going to see what kind of team you are in those moments, when your back's against the wall and you've had to deal with all these different things that come up, and injuries, and bad bounces, and everyone telling you you're great, and everyone telling you, you (stink).
''The spring camps lead to training camp and training camp leads to a good September, and September leads to a good October. You've got to build the whole way through.''
Despite all the extra training camp time dedicated to conditioning, ball security and other intricate and important facets that contribute to a successful season, Brady knows not to think too far ahead.
After all, this is his 15th season in the league.
''There's no teams that are Super Bowl ready at this point,'' he said. ''Probably there are some guys that probably think they are. But in my experience, you've got to be battle-tested and you only do that through going out there and playing games and seeing what kind of team you're made of, and execute under intense circumstances day after day, week after week, month after month.''
It really all begins Friday.
The third preseason game typically is the measuring stick for the starters, especially when facing one of the top-rated defenses from a year ago, a Panthers unit that posed problems for the Patriots in a 24-20 loss in Week 11.
''This is a very unique team that is very good and we really got everything we could handle last year,'' Brady said. ''This is one of the best defenses in the league, so we're going to have to go out there and play really well and try and have the right plays on at the right time, and try and go out and execute the best we can.''
Running back Shane Vereen no longer is surprised by Brady's preparation and work ethic. Now in his fourth season with New England, Vereen knows what to expect on and off the field.
''I've seen him lead us now for three seasons,'' he said. ''He does exactly what he's done every other year. He leads us well, leads the offense well, and we look forward to seeing that from him the rest of the year.''
Brady is hoping the most pivotal part of the preseason plays out a bit better than the third game last summer, when he went 16 of 24 for 185 yards with one interception in a 40-9 thrashing by the Detroit Lions.
''We've had a couple doozies in the third preseason game lately,'' he said. ''It would be nice to have a good one.''
Because in Brady's brain, a solid preseason leads to a successful September, and in the end, playing in January, a near certainty in the minds of every Patriots player.
''I think we've set a pretty high bar,'' Brady said. ''There's only one reason to play this game, and that's to try and win every time you take the field.
''If you like that, then this is probably a good program for you. If you don't like that, you probably won't last long.''
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