THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Cassel really is starting to get it

QB orchestrates yet another win

By Chris Forsberg
Globe Staff / November 10, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Still wish the Patriots had brought in a veteran quarterback like Daunte Culpepper?

While names like Chris Simms, Tim Rattay, and Culpepper were mentioned as replacements in the wake of Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury in Week 1, the Patriots instead put their faith in a fourth-year backup who hadn't started a game since high school.

Cassel spent weeks under the microscope, particularly in the wake of losses to Miami and San Diego. But does anyone want to criticize the decision now?

For the second consecutive week, Cassel skillfully orchestrated the offense, showcasing a confidence and poise befitting few veterans, let alone someone starting just the eighth game of his career.

Cassel completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards and, while he threw neither a touchdown nor an interception yesterday, he did scramble for a first-quarter score that jump-started a 20-10 triumph over the Bills in an AFC East clash at Gillette Stadium.

Out in Detroit, Culpepper completed 5 of 10 passes for 104 yards and an interception as the winless Lions fell to Jacksonville, 38-14. Simms is the third quarterback for the Titans, while Rattay hasn't landed a job despite reportedly auditioning in Detroit and Houston.

The Patriots - 6-3 overall and sitting atop the AFC East - like their guy.

"[Cassel] was criticized greatly," said guard Logan Mankins. "I would rather have Matt than about 99 percent of the quarterbacks in the league. That's my opinion. He's playing great, we're winning games with him, and he's doing everything that's asked of him. He's seeing the games and making plays."

The only thing higher than public opinion on Cassel is his heart rate before games. But if his adrenaline sometimes feels like it's about to overflow, he doesn't show it. Cassel completed three of his first four passes on the team's first offensive series before scrambling for a 13-yard touchdown to cap a seven-play, 71-yard drive that put the Patriots on top, 7-0.

Describing the TD, he might as well have been talking about his emergence at quarterback.

"It just opened up and parted," said Cassel. "I saw the opening and just stuck my head down and ran for it. I was able to get in the end zone. It was a good feeling - a good way to start the game."

While Patriots coach Bill Belichick called broken plays like the touchdown run a "bonus," Cassel's favorite target took a bit of umbrage with the scramble.

"At the time I was thinking, 'I beat my man, why didn't you throw it to me,' " joked wide receiver Wes Welker. "But then I saw him in the end zone and all was forgotten."

Like Mankins, count Welker as a member of the Cassel Fan Club (membership is growing faster than ever). Welker became the first player in NFL history to catch at least six passes in each of the first nine games of the season. He finished with 10 catches for 107 yards (his first 100-yard game of the season).

"Yeah, [Cassel's] done a great job," Welker said. "We wanted to come out and play well from the get-go and on that first drive were able to do that. We just have to keep that going, keep that energy going, and make sure that every time we step out there we're trying to finish drives."

That might be one of the lone criticisms remaining on Cassel, who moved the team masterfully against Indianapolis last week, but couldn't put the Patriots in the end zone (though Jabar Gaffney dropped a sure touchdown late in the game) when they needed a score most.

Yesterday, Cassel engineered what Belichick described as an "awesome" 19-play, 92-yard drive that ate more than nine minutes in the fourth quarter and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The Patriots ultimately held the ball for all but 15 seconds of the final 11:05 of the game.

Is Cassel, who graced the cover of the team's Gameday program yesterday, making the leap?

"He's been here for four years," said center Dan Koppen. "He's got guys who can make plays, so you gotta step up and get them the ball."

Cassel continues to thrive in the short passing game and Welker's 66 catches confirms as much. Cassel connected with six receivers yesterday, leaning on Welker when he needed him most.

He agrees with Koppen's assessment.

"I was a fourth-year guy, so it's not like I didn't know the system," said Cassel. "I knew the system all along, so I would always go through my reads. Now, yeah, I think there's a little bit higher comfort level because you're more familiar with your guys and what they do well, whether it be this receiver or a tight end or a running back, and you kind of go to those guys on certain routes or certain coverages."

So how would Cassel describe the offense's progress?

"We're winning ballgames," said Cassel. "We're in first place in the division and that's where we want to be and we've got a big ballgame coming up this week on Thursday night, with a quick turnaround. Everybody's excited about it. It's against the Jets and we're always excited to play the Jets and they're coming to us this time, so it should be a big challenge for us. We'll be up for the challenge, I'm sure."

Seems Cassel has been up for any challenge the Patriots have thrown at him.

Chris Forsberg can be reached at cforsberg@boston.com. For a video interview with Matt Cassel, visit Boston.com/sports.

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