By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 13, 2008

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This game will certainly be about the quarterbacks. Just don't mind the rewrite, okay?

Brett Favre, the swashbuckling former Packer quarterback who never seems to go away, was supposed to be the big story of this first meeting between the NFL's most hated rivals. He may yet be, but the season-ending injury to Tom Brady last weekend completely changed the dynamics of this game. Instead of "can the Patriots stop Favre", it instead might be all about "can the Patriots win with Cassel and not Brady".

On both counts, the Patriots don't have a lot of history, or at least positive history. The Patriots have had mostly adverse experiences in dealing with Favre, and the Patriots have not started a quarterback other than Brady since September 23, 2001, against this week's opponent, the Jets, at Foxborough Stadium. Mo Lewis changed the course of Patriot history when he knocked Drew Bledsoe from the starting quarterback job in that game. To say that Bernard Pollard did the same for the Patriots last weekend is unlikely, but it certainly changed this season.

For better or worse won't be known for a while, but a lot will go towards answering that question when the Jets and Patriots tangle on Sunday afternoon in the Joisey swamps.

The Patriots would like to think that the only thing they have to worry about in this game is Favre. He is a quarterback who, in the hands of the right defense, can be duped and goaded into throwing a ton of interceptions. The trouble is, when he plays the Patriots, he instead comes out as a quarterback version of a SWAT team sharpshooter, making impossible throws and squeezing the ball into airtight coverage, winning games with his arm more than his legs. Favre is not as young as he used to be, but if he finds the range he has had most of the time against the Patriots, how well or poorly Matt Cassel does won't matter.

Favre has played the Patriots five times in his career, and is 3-2 against the Patriots including the postseason (Super Bowl XXXI). A narrow 17-16 loss at Foxborough in 1994 begat three straight dominating wins; the 35-21 Super Bowl win, and 28-10 wins at Foxborough in 1997 and 2002. The last time the Patriots played Favre was in 2006 at Lambeau Field, but Favre played only partly in a 35-0 loss to the Patriots. In that game, Favre was only 5 of 15 for 73 yards and a 50.1 passer rating before giving way to Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots hope that this Favre awaits them on Sunday, and not the one who carved them up in those three straight wins.

In the 2002 win at Gillette Stadium (one of two home games where the Patriots wore both navy blue pants as well as jerseys), Favre was 17 of 27 for 147 yards, three touchdowns and a 114.3 passer rating. Five years earlier, at Foxborough Stadium, Favre was 23 of 34 for 239 yards, three touchdowns and a 117.2 passer rating. In Super Bowl XXXI, he was 14 of 27 for 246 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 107.9. The 2002 team was the defending champ that year, but during the season the team in general would be exposed as being suddenly too slow. The 1997 team, the first under Pete Carroll, had a defense so good that it surrendered only 7 points in a playoff game at Pittsburgh (but lost, 7-6 due to a crippled offense). The Super Bowl team was not good on defense on paper, but finished the season well before getting scuttled in the Super Bowl.

Compare that with the 2006 team. That win over the Packers was the first win in a 21-1 regular season streak which is still alive today. Starting with that win, the 2006 Patriots would hold all their opponents to 23 points or less until giving up 38 to the Colts in the season-ending AFC title game loss. This was the best Patriot defense Favre ever faced, and it finally was able to shut down Favre and his Packer offense.

This being only two seasons ago, Bill Belichick should be able to recall the game plan from back then and try to use it on Sunday. Not only will Cassel benefit from a good running game, the defense knows it must perform at higher levels than if Brady were still in there. It is super critical that the Patriots do not let Favre beat them like he had done earlier in his career.

Last week, in his Jet career debut, Favre led the Jets to a 20-14 win over former Jet quarterback Chad Pennington and the Miami Dolphins. Favre was 15 of 22 for 194 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 125.9. Despite kicker Mike Nugent being lost for the game with an injury and forced to go for it on a fourth down and 13, Favre was able to toss a touchdown pass to Chansi Stuckey on an off-balance throw. It was billed as a "typical Favre touchdown", and despite Favre thinking he had nothing left when he initially retired following the 2007 season, in the end he may have been right all along by making this audacious comeback.

Favre has a decent supporting cast, a bunch of players collected with the main intent on catching and passing New England in the AFC East standings. Thomas Jones and Tony Richardson form a nice 1-2 tandem in the backfield, the latter an experienced blocking fullback. Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery are a formidable wideout tandem, despite Coles complaining that he "had a rhythm with Pennington but hasn't found one yet with Favre". Newcomers Alan Faneca and ex-Patriot Damien Woody are welcome additions to the offensive line, the latter finally tiring of all the losing in Detroit and having his best chance at a winner since Super Bowl XXXVIII. Add these guys to a line which already features Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and Favre will be well protected all season long.

Cassel's play will be important, but the Patriot approach to Favre will be even more important. The Patriots need to pressure Favre into making quick decisions and foolish throws, while at the same time providing containment to impede his ability to scramble and make up plays as he goes along. Favre has often times shown a brazen lack of discipline, but he almost never shows that side of him against the Patriots; Favre threw two interceptions in the 1994 loss to the Patriots (the game was lost thanks to a missed extra point), none against the Patriots since. If the Patriots can get him to show that brazen side, then the game will come down to how well Cassel plays.

This Jet team is Favre's right now. Favre did come within one home playoff game of playing the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII last year. Favre is anything but washed up. He may not be as young as he once was, but if he is wiser and only moderately declining in skills, he has shown many times that he can riddle the Patriot defense. The Patriot secondary, itself perhaps more of a question mark than Cassel is, will need to step up and play an outstanding game if the Patriots are to have a chance to win on Sunday.

Of course, if the 2006 version shows up, Eric Mangini will feel worse than Belichick did last week when The Franchise went down.


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