|Matt Cassel had first-down runs of 12, 17, and 19 yards Thursday night against the Jets. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots may have lost a key divisional game to the New York Jets Thursday night, but they found out exactly what their quarterback is capable of, and it's a lot more than anybody gave Matt Cassel credit for when he first replaced the injured Tom Brady.
Cassel has consistently dispelled his doubters throughout the course of the season, but one rather large caveat remained about his quarterbackship.
The knock on Cassel entering Thursday night's 34-31 overtime loss to the Jets was that he was a caretaker QB who wasn't capable of making enough plays to lead a comeback. He disproved that characterization and proved himself by rallying his team from a 24-6 second-quarter deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter and sending it to overtime with an improbable 16-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss with a second left.
Cassel guided the Patriots' two-minute attack for 2 1/2 quarters with Brady-like precision and decisions. He wasn't a game manager; he was a gunslinger who racked up a career-high 400 yards passing and three touchdowns and added 62 yards on eight carries.
"Yeah, we just sat there, and we tried to throw up a wall, and he was just picking them apart," said left guard Logan Mankins. "He'd find the right receiver, or if no one was open he'd take off. He did a great job of that. He ran our two-minute offense to perfection last night."
The Jets gambled that Cassel, unlike Brady, wasn't a good enough quarterback to beat them and they lost that gambit and very nearly the game.
Jets coach Eric Mangini schemed to take away Moss and Wes Welker and force Cassel to find the open man. Cassel, showing how much he's evolved since he made his first career NFL start against the Jets in Week 2, responded to the challenge, throwing to Jabar Gaffney (seven catches for 86 yards and a touchdown) and Benjamin Watson (eight catches for 88 yards and a touchdown).
"I think that's how they approached it in the first game as well," said Cassel, who set career highs in completions (30) and attempts (51). "I think they went out there and said, 'Matt, we're going to try and take away your guys and see what you can do.' We were able to have some production. We gave ourselves an opportunity at the end and that's all you can ask for."
You can't really ask anything more of Cassel than what he did Thursday night. Brady, Brett Favre, or Sammy Baugh couldn't have performed much better given the circumstances.
Twice Cassel executed flawless two-minute drills, once before the end of the first half, and in the final 1:04 of regulation, when he led the Patriots 62 yards in eight plays with no timeouts to tie the score, 31-31, on the touchdown pass to Moss.
A forgotten part of that play is that Cassel was able to avoid the rush of David Bowens and escape the pocket to give Moss time to post up Ty Law in the end zone. Then he put the ball where only Moss could get it. It was a display of never-say-die, improvisational playmaking worthy of Favre, who watched it from the Jets sideline.
"Matt Cassel played one [heck] of a football game," said Favre. "I don't know if you can make a better throw at the end of the game than he made, honestly. It was a great catch on Randy's part, but that ball was thrown - I mean, Ty Law has great coverage - you can't get any better than that throw. He made some tremendous throws throughout the game."
Cassel may never win the comparison game when it comes to Brady - both have exactly one career 400-yard passing game - but there is no comparison when it comes to mobility. Cassel consistently burned the Jets with his legs, dashing for first-down runs of 12, 17, and 19 yards.
"He can run," said running back Sammy Morris. "He's pretty athletic. It really opened things up."
These rushes weren't a case of Cassel prematurely leaving the pocket in a panic. He was using his mind as much as his legs on the scrambles, reading the fact the Jets were playing man coverage underneath, which meant he had plenty of running room, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"They played a lot of man underneath, so sometimes there is a hole that opens up for me to go right up the middle," said Cassel. "The one person that they don't account for sometimes in those man coverages is the quarterback. I was able to make some plays with my legs."
The next thing Cassel has to make is a few concessions when he does scramble and slide because words that were unthinkable two months ago are true now - the Patriots can't afford to lose Matt Cassel.
"We would much rather see him slide," said Mankins. "I think we don't want to lose Matt. He's playing really well."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.