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Passing muster

Posted by Tom Wilcox November 20, 2008 05:55 AM

Matt Cassel typically looks to pass to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but the Jets had them blanketed, and the Patriots were staring at an 18-point deficit. If they were going to come back, Jabar Gaffney and Benjamin Watson would have to be the catalysts.

Gaffney had seven catches for 86 yards and a 19-yard touchdown catch — his first TD of the season — with 15 seconds left in the first half to start New England’s comeback on Nov. 13. He also had a 2-point conversion catch from Cassel on the final play of the third quarter to cut the Jets’ lead to 24-21.

Watson scored his first touchdown of the season and grabbed a team-high eight balls for 88 yards.

“They were doubling for most of the game, almost all of the game, so that just gave the other guys opportunities,” said Cassel. “We understood going in that they were going to probably try to take [Moss] away.”

With New York playing particularly physically against Welker in the slot and old friend Ty Law doing a great job containing Moss on the outside, Cassel had to go to his third, fourth, and sometimes even fifth options. The fact that he was able to get that far in his progression illustrates how far the first-year starter has come.

“He was real cool back there in the pocket, guiding us,” said Gaffney. “It kind of looked like 12 [Tom Brady] was back there the way he ran the no-huddle, and he did a great job of spreading the ball around. … It’s definitely a confidence booster. We were down and he brought us all the way back and we had a chance.”

The numbers just keep getting better for Cassel every week. From 165 yards in his first start to his scintillating 400-yard, three-TD performance against the Jets, the progression has been even more rapid than Brady’s in his first year under center.

Cassel was the first player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to have at least 400 passing yards and 60 rushing yards in a game.

Missed opportunities
One of the keys entering the Jets game figured to be the turnover battle, and that certainly held true — but not the way the Patriots were envisioning. New England was unable to force Brett Favre, who came into the game with a league-high 12 interceptions, into making a single mistake.

Meanwhile, the Patriots had some missed opportunities and a bad turnover in the third quarter. Down 24-13, the Patriots drove down to the Jets’ 22-yard line before Watson fumbled the ball away. After forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing possession behind a pair of sacks by Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour, New England came back to drive to the New York 38, but a mistimed snap from center Dan Koppen resulted in a 24-yard loss. That took the Patriots out of field goal range, ultimately resulting in a punt.

“We dug ourselves a hole and we made some plays to get back in there, but we missed some good opportunities in the third quarter to really close the gap,” said coach Bill Belichick.

Another big factor was the Patriots’ inability to get the Jets off the field. New York was 9-for-16 (56 percent) on third-down conversions.

Especially disappointing
The Patriots have had one of the top special teams units in all of football this year, which made their 34-31 loss to the Jets even more of a letdown. Poor play on special teams, particularly the kick return defense, proved pivotal.

After returns of 30 and 37 yards by Leon Washington on his first two attempts, Washington broke one for a 92-yard touchdown and a 17-6 lead early in the second quarter.
“That was a big play, we didn’t cover it,” said Belichick. “We didn’t play it very well.”

Time out
After playing two games in a five-day span, the Patriots enjoyed some much-needed rest last weekend. Belichick gave the team two days off in preparation for Sunday’s divisional clash of 6-4 teams in Miami.

“We have to rest up and come back for this last stretch of games and pick up some W’s,” said safety James Sanders. “We just have to continue to play hard and get better as a team. This is obviously a big one.”

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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