By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 19, 2006

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FOXBOROUGH -- The numbers by themselves do not bear this out.

If you pick up the paper and go right for the box score, here is what you will find regarding Matt Cassel. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. You go to your stat geek friend with these numbers and he will gladly tell you that his rating for the game was 133.8. You see that Cassel got the better of his more heralded former quarterback teammate from college. You sit back with your cup of coffee and feel a comforting feeling coming over you, knowing that if Tom Brady blew out his knee, things would be okay with the Patriots.

Go inside the numbers and you get a little different story.

First of all, Deion Branch's agent might want to give his client some different advice.

Second of all, Brady had still better never get hurt.

Casual fans who watched Saturday night's 30-3 win by the Patriots over the Arizona Cardinals will look at the 30 and the 3 and go head for their favorite tavern. Besides trying to drink away the grief over the shellacking the Yankees are currently laying on the Red Sox 30 miles up north, these fans are probably cozy warm with their team right now, and cannot wait to get the fourth Super Bowl march under way.

Face it, if you like the Patriots, there was a lot to like about Saturday night. Arizona was completely dominated, but that sort of thing happens a lot to Arizona anyway. With most of the first units in as long as the entire first half, the Patriots went into the locker room comfortably up, 13-3, with the Cardinals getting hardly a whiff of prosperity. Both sides of the ball looked great. Things went so well for the defense that Junior Seau suited up, played zero downs, and still the defense held the Cardinals to only 151 total yards.

But all enthusiasm must be tempered just a little bit before you start booking a hotel for Miami in February. While the Patriots did look generally terrific, there are a few things you might want to think about as the Patriots head closer to their September 10th opener against Buffalo at home.

The Patriots showed tonight that they can run an exciting and diverse offense with no Branch out there. Between Brady and Cassel, they threw to sixteen different receivers. Leading the way is perhaps the one man who is keeping the Patriots from caving into Branch's demands, that being Ben Watson. Watson had four catches for 40 yards, but most of those catches were "go-to guy catches" in tight situations. Watson also had two decent seal blocks on other plays in the first half.

When things get real, and if Branch is still sitting at home, it is Watson who will be bringing up the slack, and not Reche Caldwell or anyone else. Branch may still think that he is worth top receiver money, but he has to be careful when he sees the Patriot offense click like it did Saturday night without him.

And it was Brady, not Cassel, who was really bringing home the bacon Saturday night.

Brady had to go against the top Cardinal defensive unit, and with help from Watson, he was able to run a varied offense. Brady's numbers were 15 of 20 passing for 149 yards and a 95.6 rating. He looked in midseason form all night long, and looked supremely confident as can be expected.

Kevin Faulk also had himself a nice evening. He had two rushes for 21 yards and three pass catches for 34 yards. He had double-digit averages in both categories. If Faulk can stay healthy, he also could take some of the sting out of Branch not being in there.

When Cassel came in, he repeated something from last week in Atlanta. He once again came out rusty and took several plays to finally get himself untracked. When he did finally pull himself together and do well, it was against players who won't be good enough to make the Arizona Cardinals.

Cassel played one series early in the second quarter and gained 12 yards before having to give the ball up. Nine of those yards were on a scramble by Cassel himself. He came back in the third quarter, and went three and out despite an offside penalty called along the way on Langston Moore. On second and third down, Cassel tried right flat passes, and on both plays, Antonio Smith batted them down. Cassel would misfire on his first four passes before finally hitting his stride.

A telling stat in this game is the fact that Cassel turned out to be the leading rusher on the team with 31 yards rushing, three more than Laurence Maroney and five more than Corey Dillon. Cassel was sacked twice and scrambled five other times. Brady, on the other hand, had no rushes and was sacked only once. While Cassel is showing that he can run the ball well (a 6.2-yard average), it must again be emphasized that it was against the low end of the Arizona roster. These sort of runs more than likely would not be there were these games for real against starters on defense.

It was the veteran Troy Brown who got Cassel going in the third quarter. Brown caught two passes for 31 yards, and both of them were on consecutive plays on the second drive of the third quarter. They were Cassel's first two completions of the night. The first was a leaping grab on a crossing pattern (Cassel was almost on his knees when he released the ball), the second one was off a deflection. Those two grabs finally put Cassel at ease, and he would go on to complete 12 of his next 14 passes.

Cassel would throw two touchdown passes. One of them was a nine-yard toss to Heath Evans in the left corner of the end zone. The other was a five-yard throw to Rich Musinski, who slipped into the back of the end zone on a broken play and got separation from Dyshod Carter. The Musinski touchdown may have been Cassel's finest hour, hitting paydirt on a play which could have gone completely bad.

Cassel did well, for the most part. It's just that he hasn't yet shown that he can run the Patriot offense with the top players out there. He looks like he takes a long time to get untracked, and doesn't have the big game experience Brady has. Despite doing well in the season finale last year against Miami, that was a game the Patriots were actually trying to lose. Cassel remains an untested commodity, but he is a project well worth continuing to develop.

As for Branch, he might want to think this holdout over. The last thing he needs is for the Patriots to come off as not needing him. It's not likely that that would ever really happen, but you could say that a seed might have been planted Saturday night.

And a seed may be all you need to get him back.


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