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Catching ultimate compliment

Coach calls Moss smartest receiver

FOXBOROUGH - With 44 receptions for an NFL-leading 732 yards and 10 touchdowns, Randy Moss's athletic prowess has been on full display through the season's first seven games.

But Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed to a different part of Moss's game while speaking with Redskins reporters on a conference call yesterday.

"He is probably the smartest receiver I have coached," Belichick said.

Considering that Belichick said he had little history with Moss prior to his April trade to the Patriots, the words carry significance. Belichick, a coach with 33 years in the NFL, has been won over in six months.

"Randy has come in and done a great job for us," Belichick said on the conference call. "He is smart and competitive. He has outstanding receiving skills. He makes great decisions on the field, in terms of reading coverages and making route adjustments."

Moss's smarts have helped him pick up the Patriots' complex offense, despite the fact he didn't get on the field for the bulk of training camp. His combination of physical skills and sharp mental approach has also contributed to him playing 83 percent of the team's snaps, the highest percentage of skill-position players (other than quarterbacks).

Dogged persistence

Coach Joe Gibbs framed Sunday's game between the Patriots and his Redskins as a David vs. Goliath battle when he said Washington would "probably be the biggest underdog in the history of sports."

When that statement was relayed to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady yesterday, the eight-year veteran questioned the veracity of Gibbs's statement. "I think he's blowing smoke," Brady said. "I promise you that he's not telling his team that, I'm sure.

"That sounds like something that Coach Belichick would say, so he's trying to butter us up. You know, it doesn't work for us. We know what we're getting ourselves into. We're playing one of the best defenses in the league and they've been in every game this year. They're 4-2, could easily be 6-0."

But Gibbs, speaking with New England reporters via conference call yesterday, insisted he was simply telling it like it is. "What I was trying to be there was real truthful about it," Gibbs said. "What are we now? I don't know. How many points [of an underdog]?"

Told that the pointspread is in the 16- to 17-point range, Gibbs was quick with the reply: "Seventeen or sixteen? Is that blowing smoke?" he said. "I would say 17-point underdog, that's pretty realistic. And it will probably climb, let's put it that way.

"They're at the top of their game and I think everybody in the world realizes that I wasn't trying to blow smoke. I was trying to be realistic. I was trying to say, 'Hey, look, these are what the facts are.' I wasn't trying to kid somebody; I think that's the deal."

Picking himself up

Backup quarterback Matt Cassel spoke for the first time about the tough outing he had last Sunday in Miami. Cassel replaced Brady in the fourth quarter but lasted only one series, throwing an interception that Miami's Jason Taylor returned for a touchdown to cut the Patriots' lead to 42-21. For the next series, Belichick reinserted Brady, who proceeded to restore the 28-point lead in short order.

When the Patriots got the ball back, Matt Gutierrez was under center.

"Obviously, you never want to go into a game and get an opportunity and throw a pick," Cassel said yesterday. "It was an unfortunate circumstance and it happens in football. You know it's one of those things where they made a good play and you've just got to move on."

Cassel, now in his third season, said he didn't feel that being removed from the game was a setback in his development.

"No, it's just part of the game that you have to overcome," he said. "It's one of those things where you've got to deal with adversity, and you're going to have really good games and you're going to have a game where you throw a bad ball . . ."

Before Cassel, usually a straight shooter, could finish that thought, he was intercepted again - this time by a protective Brady, who interjected, "Come on, Cass, let's go work out. We've got to go work out. Come on, Cass, let's go."

Cassel complied, but not before completing his prior answer, ". . . that's what it is."

Wilson ailing

Safety Eugene Wilson was held out of yesterday's practice with an ankle injury, which also might explain why his playing time was limited Sunday.

Wilson, who started the first five games but has come off the bench in the last two, did not play in the final two series against the Dolphins.

Elsewhere on the injury front, tight end Benjamin Watson (left ankle) was held out of practice. Running back Sammy Morris (chest), safety Mel Mitchell (groin), and inside linebacker Eric Alexander (knee) also missed practice.

Other than the standard listing of Brady (right shoulder), the Patriots had no other players on their injury report. That meant a clean bill of health for seven players who landed on the report last week - cornerback Randall Gay (thigh), running back Laurence Maroney (groin), guard Stephen Neal (shoulder), receiver Donte' Stallworth (knee), inside linebacker Adalius Thomas (ankle), wide receiver Kelley Washington (hamstring), and defensive lineman Mike Wright (knee).

Next in line

With defensive lineman Richard Seymour returning to practice, that leaves receiver Troy Brown as the only player on the team's physically unable to perform list who has yet to practice. Will he return this season? "We'll see. I hope so," Brown said as he walked through the locker room to the training room. If Brown is to return, he must start practicing by the end of the season's ninth week . . . A scoring change from Sunday has given Mike Vrabel a sack, upping his season total to a team-leading 4 1/2. The sack came in the first quarter when Vrabel bull-rushed tight end David Martin into Dolphins quarterback Cleo Lemon, forcing a fumble that the Patriots recovered . . . Belichick said he spoke with Red Sox manager Terry Francona Tuesday, when he presumably wished him good luck in the World Series. "It looks like they have good control over the situation," Belichick said. "They know what they're doing. They're playing well. Tito does a great job, as does the team. I'm sure they'll be fine." . . . Brady was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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