CINCINNATI -- Matt Cassel once threw five touchdowns in a game. That was quite a while ago.
At another time and another place, in another century even.
Since leaving Chatsworth (Calif.) High School, Cassel has thrown a lot of footballs, but almost all have been in practice, and not one has been for a touchdown in a game.
After being shut out as a collegian, Cassel threw his first touchdown pass in his first game on his first drive as a professional. And it took only 10 passes -- more than a season's worth of work at Southern California, where he had only 33 career attempts.
With veteran quarterbacks Tom Brady and Doug Flutie watching from the sideline, the Patriots' fourth-string quarterback provided a spark off the bench in New England's 23-13 victory over Cincinnati before 55,544 at Paul Brown Stadium.
The night was particularly fun for Cassel, as Bengal quarterback Carson Palmer started in front of him for two years at USC.
''He told me I did a good job," said Cassel, who directed New England to 20 of its 23 points. ''I was actually looking forward to it. I figured if I wanted to play [my first NFL game] against anybody, I wanted it to be against Carson, a guy I look up to.
''I was just trying to stay calm and run the operation."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he elected to sit Brady and Flutie because he wanted to look at other people play.
''We had two quarterbacks that haven't played very much," Belichick said, referring to Cassel and No. 2 quarterback Rohan Davey, who started the game. ''We looked at a lot of people and got a chance to see everybody play."
Though he wore a wrap on his elbow Tuesday at practice, Brady said after the game he was fine.
The two-time defending Super Bowl champions' offense wasn't particularly fine without him, though Davey and Cassel managed to generate 314 yards to the Bengals' 227. Cassel accounted for more than half that himself, with 135 passing yards (13 of 21) and 46 rushing yards.
Davey (4 of 7 for 42 yards with an interception) acknowledged the offense was somewhat ragged with him at the helm.
''Any time you have the opportunity to go out there and play, you have to take advantage of it," Davey said. ''We have a lot of work to do, a lot of things that could be corrected. But it was a good start -- we won.
''You're playing with some guys you haven't worked with and that's no excuse on the miscommunications, because ultimately the ball is in my hand and I decide what to do with it."
More than half of the Patriots' yardage before the intermission came when Cassel took over for the final drive of the second quarter.
As with most rookies, Cassel's debut was erratic, with as many near blunders as thrilling plays. He ran well (three scrambles for 26 yards) and threw accurately (6 for 10 for 60 yards), but almost turned the ball over several times, as he came on with 3:55 on the clock and the Patriots in a no-huddle offense.
Twice he lost control of the football while diving for yardage, but both times the officials ruled him down before the fumble. He also got away with a sluggish throw toward Bam Childress on an out pattern that Bengals safety Kevin Kaesviharn jumped for but couldn't snag for the interception and probable touchdown return.
But Cassel didn't flinch and three plays later picked up a first down with an 8-yard scramble on a fourth-and-4 from the Cincinnati 43.
He then showed some awareness in reading an all-out blitz to hit Jason Anderson on a quick hitch to the right. Anderson, a rookie from Wake Forest, made a move past cornerback Brandon Williams and raced into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.
Adam Vinatieri, who earlier had a 48-yard field goal, tacked on the extra point to give New England a 10-3 lead with just 13 seconds left before intermission.
New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini's unit was solid, making several big plays to keep the Bengals out of the end zone until Chris Henry's 3-yard reception with 7:21 left.
But Cassel led the Patriots on an eight-play, 68-yard march -- capped by fullback Kyle Eckel's 4-yard run with 2:39 to play -- to seal the victory.
Asante Samuel jump-started the defense with an interception on the first play from scrimmage. Cornerback Chad Scott added a pick late in the game.
Safety Rodney Harrison plugged holes in the middle early on, filling in gaps where inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson once resided. Their absence was fairly noticeable, as inside starters Mike Vrabel and Chad Brown seemed to be out of position on a few plays and missed tackles on others.
Vrabel left with an apparent ankle injury before the half, and did not return to the sideline and was not seen in the locker room after the game.
''We have a long way to go," Belichick said. ''There were a lot of things we got away with tonight execution-wise that won't happen three or four weeks from now.
''I think it was a competitive game and we got a lot out of it. The Bengals are a good team, an experienced team, and we got a lot of good learning by playing them, and we'll get some teaching done off the tape."