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FALCONS 26, PATRIOTS 23

Cassel is off mark

Patriots backup QB gets chance, but fumbles early

ATLANTA -- Were he still around and at the Patriots' first exhibition game last night, Sir Francis Bacon might rethink that knowledge is a power thing.

Remember a year ago, when Matt Cassel, a player who knew the playbook like the back of somebody else's hand, shined as the Patriots beat Cincinnati?

Well, a year of study, and the Patriots backup quarterback didn't seem to show much improvement.

Cassel had an up-and-down night, as the Patriots fell to Atlanta, 26-23 at the Georgia Dome, thanks to a 40-yard Michael Koenen field goal on the last play.

``There were some [positive] plays, but too much inconsistency on my part," said Cassel, who completed 13 of 26 passes for 229 yards and one touchdown. ``That's on me. I want to play better. I need to play better.

``We kept fighting back and there's definitely no give up. The thing is you come here to win and that's the whole thing. What it comes down to is winning games. We weren't able to accomplish that tonight and I take a lot of responsibility in that, being the quarterback, and not getting that done."

Most of Cassel's success came against the bottom end of the Falcons' roster, but at least he found some success after a sluggish start to what was a very important game for him.

Since Tom Brady took over in the 2001 season, coach Bill Belichick has opted to have a veteran backup quarterback on the roster. Last year it was Doug Flutie, with Cassel holding the No. 3 spot.

A year in the system, and the Patriots and Cassel were hoping he had improved enough to handle the No. 2 job. That question remained unanswered after last night's effort.

Yet Cassel finished strong, leading the Patriots to three straight scoring drives to finish the game. The first two ended in touchdowns; the last was a 30-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica that tied the score at 23-23 with 2:44 remaining.

Several first-year Patriots had solid games, with both teams going deep into the depth chart in the second half.

Laurence Maroney led all rushers with 66 yards on nine carries. Garrett Mills, a rookie H-back from Tulsa who practiced sparingly in the first two weeks of camp, had five catches for 75 yards. Patrick Cobbs, an undrafted free agent from North Texas, provided a spark to the offense, turning a screen pass from Cassel into a 57-yard touchdown, and contributing a game-high 80 receiving yards and 25 yards rushing on five carries.

Defensively, rookie linebackers Pierre Woods and Jeremy Mincey made several plays, and safety/return man Willie Andrews was a factor.

``A lot of our young players had their moments, and then there are other plays that I don't think were great, but we have to look at the film and I'm pretty sure we'll see a number of mistakes," Belichick said. ``Hopefully, they'll get better next week."

Brady (3 for 4 for 24 yards) made a cameo appearance, leading New England to a field goal on the only drive he played. Cassel played the remainder of the first half, and the Patriots managed only one more field goal -- a 34-yarder by rookie Stephen Gostkowski -- in four other possessions.

The scoring drive was a solid seven-play, 64-yard trek, but on the other three possessions, the Patriots were held to 7 yards on nine plays. One of those plays was a Cassel turnover, as he fumbled after being hit by John Abraham.

Atlanta's Patrick Kerney recovered at the Patriots' 36, and the Falcons quickly turned the turnover into points. Michael Jenkins beat Asante Samuel for a touchdown reception from Matt Schaub on the next play to give Atlanta a 10-3 lead with less than a minute left in the first quarter.

As if the fumble weren't evidence that Cassel was having a tough night, the second-year QB from Southern California short-hopped a throw to an open receiver over the middle and had two attempts batted down in the pocket.

At the half, Cassel had completed only 2 of 6 passes for 48 yards (44 of which came on a catch-and-run by Benjamin Watson), with the Patriots going three-and-out on three of the four drives he led.

Things didn't get much better for Cassel in the third quarter, as the Patriots came out of the locker room and failed to notch a first down on their first two possessions.

On the third try of the period, Cassel finally got something going with a 12-yard scramble for a first down. Two plays later, he hit Cobbs and watched the tailback maneuver 57 yards into the end zone.

The Falcons responded in short order, going 72 yards in five plays, with Jerious Norwood finishing it with a 34-yard touchdown on a pass from Bryan Randall. It was Norwood's second long reception of the game (he had a 37-yarder earlier).

The Falcons struck first, getting a 44-yard field goal from Koenen. Atlanta drove 50 yards to set up the score, with Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn bursting free on runs of more than 15 yards. Like Brady, Vick played only one series, and he finished with 26 yards passing (3 for 4) and 16 yards rushing on one carry.

The Patriots answered with a 26-yard field goal by Gramatica to cap a 75-yard march, highlighted by a pair of runs from Maroney.

He ripped off a 12-yard run with his first carry as a professional, and followed with a 27-yard burst on a draw play to pick up a first down on third and 18 from the Atlanta 42.

Koenen led the Patriots kicking twosome of Gramatica and Gostkowski, three field goals to two, and Atlanta held a 16-6 lead until Cobbs's TD closed the gap to 3 points late in the third quarter.

Cassel looked better in the fourth quarter, showing the ability to avoid the rush to complete a 15-yard pass to Mills. The Cassel-Mills connection accounted for 31 more yards on the drive, setting up a 1-yard run by Heath Evans to get the Patriots within 23-20 with 10:37 left.

Cassel, who finished with 32 yards on six carries, was the only Patriots quarterback other than Brady to play. Rookie Corey Bramlet and Todd Mortensen, who are vying for the No. 3 spot on the roster, did not see action.

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