September 07, 2008
Cassel Wins Battle Of Backups
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- Either the Patriots pulled off one of the biggest con jobs of the century, or it was a good thing that it was the Kansas City Chiefs the Patriots were playing.
Staring down disaster squarely in the face, Matt Cassel came on with 1:36 left in the first quarter, and his offense with its back to the wall at their own 2-yard line. After two sick run plays where Sammy Morris was twice almost nailed in the end zone for a safety, Cassel coolly and calmly hit Randy Moss down the right sideline for a 51-yard pass. Cassel settled in, took the Patriots to the house, and enabled his team to eventually come away with a 17-10 win over the Chiefs in the 2008 season opener at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Cassel looked nothing at all like he did in the preseason. With fans and experts all over the place clamoring for his release, Cassel instead played with poise all game long, made good decisions all throughout the game and made no foolish throws. He did perhaps the most important thing of all, that being giving his team a chance to win the game, a game which turned into a duel of backup quarterbacks and a lower scoring affair than many fans might have been expecting.
Brady, for what little time he was in there, was victimized by two uncharacteristic fumbles, one coming on the play where he was injured and had to leave the game. Brady's numbers were good, hitting on 7 of 11 passes for 76 yards. But the first drive for the Patriots ended with Brady throwing behind Wes Welker in the right flat, and former Dolphin Patrick Surtain stripping the ball. Jarrad Page picked up the loose ball and returned it eight yards. Then at the end of the next possession, Brady threw his final pass of the afternoon, a 28-yard deep pass to Moss who lost the ball when he tried to shake a tackler. Brandon Carr fell on the ball at the Kansas City 14-yard line.
On the play, Bernard Pollard was closing in on Brady up the middle and was tripped up. He fell on Brady's left leg just as Brady was throwing the ball. It was mildly reminiscent of the hit Lee Flowers of Pittsburgh put on Brady in the 2001 AFC title game at Heinz Field, except that was an intentional hit and Brady only suffered a high ankle sprain. This hit by Pollard was accidental, and it was Brady's knee that was hurt. No word has come down from the Patriots other that his return was "questionable"; Brady wound up missing the rest of the contest.
Fans everywhere began to yell "To the lifeboats!", but such concerns were unfounded. First of all, Kansas City was totally unable to take advantage of the two fumbles. Second of all, with Cassel coming in and engineering that 98-yard scoring drive, the Patriots never lost their poise or confidence level. The only real reasons the Patriots were held to 17 points was largely because Cassel was unable to make plays that Brady can make but didn't make foolish throws in trying to do so, and the Chief defense never tired all game long and was able to limit the damage of Morris, Laurence Maroney and the Patriot running attack, especially in the fourth quarter.
Two plays in general sum up why the Patriots didn't make more hay against a Chief team which played better than they looked on paper. In the second quarter, LaMont Jordan came in for his only offensive series with his team at their own 15. He ran for five yards on first down, but gained only one yard on second down. This was largely because Cassel telegraphed the handoff to Jordan and the Chief defense had plenty of time to react. In the fourth quarter, with 8:13 to go and the Patriots needing to run clock, they got stopped on third and one at their own at their own 47 on a run up the middle by Heath Evans, a play that gets a first down 99.9% of the time. The offensive line got zero push on the play, as the Chief defensive line still had enough energy that late in the contest to stop what is usually a gimme play for the Patriots.
Cassel was the story all game long. His touchdown pass to Moss to cap the initial 98-yard drive was a perfectly thrown laser into the end zone from ten yards out, thrown exactly high enough for Moss to make one of his patented leaping catches. His final numbers were 13 of 18 for 152 yards and that touchdown. His passer rating was a terrific 116.0. He would also lead the Patriots on an 80-yard, 11-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter, hitting David Thomas for 18 yards and Welker for 13 yards along the way. Morris ran it in from five yards out to make it 14-3 Patriots.
The defense nearly ruined Cassel's effort in the end, as they gave up a fourth quarter touchdown to Dwayne Bowe, and a foolish 68-yard bomb to Devard Darling on the final drive of the game. Bowe made an incredible leaping grab with Ellis Hobbs defending him for a 13-yard scoring toss with 13:06 left in the game to make it 14-10 Patriots, and both James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather suffered a coverage breakdown with Lewis Sanders and Rodney Harrison blitzing Huard on the long pass to Darling.
Hobbs would redeem himself with an interception of Huard on the drive after the touchdown, then defended one of the passes to Bowe on the final goal line stand with the Chiefs perched at the Patriot 5 following the long pass to Darling. Meriweather and Deltha O'Neal helped save the game for the Patriots, defending well on the final two offensive plays of the game for the Chiefs.
Croyle was hurt in the third quarter after being sacked by Adalius Thomas. Huard, who has two Super Bowl rings as a Patriot, came in and played well in his own right. He would finish with 8 of 12 passing for 112 yards and the touchdown pass to Bowe, but also suffered the Hobbs pick. Croyle was 11 of 19 for 88 yards before leaving with his shoulder injury.
Another bright spot for the Patriots was the play of third string right guard Billy Yates. Most of the better Patriot running plays were off right tackle, and it helped both Maroney and Morris to average over five yards per carry (the two backs combined for 104 rushing yards). Yates was one of several players under a microscope, and he did well, but all enthusiasm must be tempered until Yates proves he can play this well against better competition. Most of the runs to the left side were not as successful, and Maroney made several runs where he ran right and cut back left.
The Patriots won their 20th straight regular season game, extending their NFL record. They were able to survive without Brady, and the defense made the big plays when they had to despite showing cracks in the fourth quarter. It was the classic case of "we'll take the win", and the Patriots made up for their pathetic preseason with a nice effort minus their iconic leader.
Next weekend at the Jets, the Patriots will need that iconic leader back. Fortunately, neither you nor I nor Eric Mangini will know what he will have to game plan for.
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