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Cassel stands tall -- and alone

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 14, 2008 11:04 AM

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"Matt Cassel played a helluva game. I don't think you can make a throw any better than the one he made at the end."
-- Brett Favre

FOXBOROUGH -- In the end, as the New York Jets methodically advanced down the field, Matt Cassel found himself in a most familiar place: on the sideline. The man who has spent the bulk of his NFL career as a backup to the great Tom Brady could do nothing but watch, undoubtedly leading to a conversation Cassel has had with himself countless times before.

Just give me a chance.

The 2008 Patriots season is now 10 games old following last night's 34-31 loss to the New York Jets, and maybe it is time for us to admit a somewhat startling reality: They really haven't missed Brady quite as much as we thought they would. The Patriots are 6-4 and they could easily be 8-2, their last two defeats coming by a combined six points in entirely winnable games. And as much as Brady might have made a difference on those nights, the downfall of the Patriots in each instance resulted more from some very uncharacteristic and downright stupid mistakes at positively critical times of the game.

Let's see: David Thomas took a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on what could have been the game-winning drive against the Indianapolis Colts. In the same game, Jabar Gaffney dropped a touchdown pass that was all but delicately placed in his hands like a tray of champagne flutes.

Last night, the Patriots defense was called for not one, but two defensive holding calls inside the 10-yard line. They failed to execute a snap in the shotgun and suffered a mind-numbing 24-yard loss, turning a first and 10 into a second and 34. And then there was Ben Watson's fumble, arguably the worst Patriots giveaway since Patrick Pass unforgettably grabbed his hamstring and voluntarily dropped the football in the middle of the field as if he were putting down his suitcase.

Are you kidding?

About the only remotely familiar thing with the Pats in those games has been the play of the quarterback.

"All we asked of him is to continue to improve and he's done that," Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after last night's loss. "I think he's shown the league that we can win with him."

Well, yes and no.

What he's shown the league is that somebody can win with him, even if the Patriots haven't necessarily maximized the opportunity.

By now, we all have seen Cassel's numbers from what was on many levels a historic performance last night. He finished with 400 yards passing and three touchdowns (against no interceptions) while completing 30 of 51 passes and rushing for another 62 yards. According to the NFL Network, since the merger of the AFL and NFL nearly 40 years ago, Cassel is the only quarterback in history to throw for 400 yards and rush for at least 60 in the same game.

Beyond that, trailing by seven points with 1:04 remaining and no timeouts left, Cassel executed the kind of game-tying drive of which legends are made, culminating in a precise, hair-splitting throw to Randy Moss in a pitch-and-catch combination that was indefensible because it was executed perfectly.

What a drive.

And all from a guy who has started nine games since high school.

For the Pats, the only unfortunate part of Cassel's breathtaking development is that someone else is going to gain from it; the young man is a free agent at the end of the year, and he will be too expensive to keep as a backup quarterback when GQB returns to the field, whenever that may be. The end result is that Cassel benefited from last night's game far more than the Patriots did, if only because there is now evidence that he can do more than just prevent a football team from losing.

He can single-handedly bring a team back, and more important, he can lead.

Already, the unrelenting nitwit factions of the Internet and talk radio worlds are spinning their wheels wondering if there is way for the Pats to dump Brady, which ultimately is nothing but further evidence that Cassel is not nearly as big a problem as Bill Belichick's one-time vaunted defense.

"We've spread teams out before and we've thrown the ball well before,'' Cassel said when asked if both he and the Patriots last night demonstrated an offensive capability that might prod future opponents to rethink strategy. "This was just something that happened. We were down and the coaches felt it was the best way to try to get ourselves back in the ballgame, so I don't know if we'll use this going forward or not."

In some ways, even that is immaterial.

What is important is that the Patriots threaten to use it.

Despite the line of some postgame questioning in the catacombs of Gillette Stadium, last night's game did not decide anything in the AFC East and it was not a "changing of the guard" in the division, the latter of which actually was queried to Jets coach Eric Mangini following the game. The Pats are now one game behind the Jets in the division with six games remaining on the schedule, which means that nearly 40 percent of the schedule still remains. Belichick has lots of issues to address before the Pats next take the field in Miami Nov. 23, ranging from the injuries to the cashmere mafia that is his soft secondary to special teams play that has been anything but.

Ironic, isn't?

Way back when, all the Pats asked Cassel to do was to give them a chance.

Now they're not giving him one.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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