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NFL Preseason: Patriots Begin Exhibition Play By Hosting Saints Thursday Night

(Sports Network) - The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints will be back on the field for the first time since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this past winter, as they travel to meet the New England Patriots in the preseason opener for both teams on Thursday.

It was Feb. 7 when the longtime star-crossed franchise won its first Super Bowl, upsetting the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, at Sun Life Stadium in South Florida.

Little has changed since then from a personnel standpoint for the Saints, though the franchise did make an effort to prop up an inconsistent defense during the offseason. Defensive end Alex Brown (ex-Bears), linebacker Clint Ingram (ex-Jaguars) and first-round rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson (Florida State) are all expected to be in uniform for New Orleans on Thursday. Another defensive addition, end Jimmy Wilkerson (ex-Buccaneers), comes off knee surgery and his status for Thursday is in question.

The high-octane Saints offense is unlikely to see much time in its first-team incarnation on Thursday, though solidifying the quarterback depth chart behind Drew Brees could be more important than any minutes Brees and company would play. Following backup Mark Brunell's free-agent defection to the Jets last month, New Orleans' signal-calling reserves are journeyman Patrick Ramsey, who last started an NFL game in 2005, and the even less experienced Chase Daniel and rookie Sean Canfield (Oregon State).

The home fans at Gillette Stadium, meanwhile, will be eager to witness the work of a new-look group of pass-catchers.

Wideouts Torry Holt (ex-Jaguars) and rookie Taylor Price (3rd Round, Ohio) are among the new Patriots vying for wideout duties this season, and incoming tight ends Alge Crumpler (from Titans), Rob Gronkowski (2nd Round, Arizona) and Aaron Hernandez (4th Round, Florida) have altered the complexion of that position.

Quarterback Tom Brady is expected to play sparingly on Thursday before yielding to backups Brian Hoyer and Zac Robinson.

Defensively, the likes of linemen Gerard Warren (ex-Raiders) and Damione Lewis (ex-Panthers) and three highly-touted rookies -- linebackers Jermaine Cunningham (Florida) and Brandon Spikes (Florida) along with cornerback Devin McCourty (Rutgers) -- are expected to wear New England uniforms for the first time.

The Patriots won the AFC East with a 10-6 record last season, but were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs in a 33-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round.

The all-time preseason series between the Patriots and Saints is deadlocked, 4-4, with New Orleans evening the series by virtue of a 37-27 win prior to the 2005 season. The clubs last met in the regular season on Nov. 30 of last year, a 38-17 Saints victory on a Monday night at the Superdome.