by Chris Warner
Up 19-10 on fourth down with less than two minutes left, the Patriots had options. They could have run it up the middle, or taken a knee. While New England fans prepped for the Jets getting possession and a garbage-time display of Brett Favre’s arm strength, Matt Cassel flung a screen to Wes Welker, who wriggled his way to a five-yard reception and a first down. Cue the victory formation.
Two weeks ago, if I’d informed you that the Patriots would go 2-0 with Matt Cassel playing 7.5 of eight quarters, you would have said, “Oh, cool. That’s – wait, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENS TO TOM BRADY?” And then I would have told you, and you would have popped me in the jaw. So, because time machines have yet to be invented, and because we’ve all had a week to digest (plus one Cassel start), let’s avoid any ugliness and get to the good news. New England is 1-0 in division play.
Cassel will make headlines, mainly due to the man he replaced Sunday. (I’m guessing at today’s puns: stormed, foundation, magic. Heaven help me, I love them all.) It’s important for Cassel to have similar performances (16 of 23, 165 yards) in the future so that he can evolve from “Not Tom Brady” into “The Pats’ Starting QB.”
Think of it this way: Patriot Place has a slew of restaurants now. Instead of filet mignon, consider having a burger. If you keep expectations reasonable, you’ll leave satisfied. (And if you like to throw caution to the wind, so to speak, check out the 5-Alarm Burger at Red Robin. Just reading about that hurts my stomach lining. Yet somehow, tempting…)
Brady’s injury had propelled the NFL into a Brave New World type of hierarchy, where Type As suddenly found themselves questioning their places in league society while outsiders looked to secure new roles (seriously, if you haven’t read the book, it will blow your mind). Instead of putting the onus on one leader, New England looked to several, getting some steady and surprising performances in Not Jets Stadium.
Like a good book, this one took a while to get into. New York looked ready to roll early, moving the ball at will on their opening possession. A 67-yard drive saw Favre convert two third downs while Thomas Jones ran four times for 28 yards (including a 16-yarder). Inside their own 20, New England’s defense held, forcing a Jay Feely 31-yard field goal attempt. The kick went so far to the right that John Birch agreed with it.
The Pats got on the move. After a gaining two on a Laurence Maroney run, Cassel hit Kevin Faulk in the flat for 14. Maroney’s pickup of three was followed by Cassel’s 17-yard completion to Welker, with Welker getting nine of those yards after the catch. Two more runs and a throw to Sammy Morris garnered another first down. A bubble screen to Welker with timely blocks by Matt Light and Jabar Gaffney netted 26 yards to the Jets’ five. On third and goal from the two, safety Kerri Rhodes blasted Maroney for a loss. Gostkowski plunked the 21-yard boot for a 3-0 lead.
What’s that you say? A disappointing drive? Maybe. Unlike last year, sometimes 2008 won’t be a pleasant experience, i.e., the dessert after a perfect meal. On their opening drive, New England went 76 yards in 12 plays, taking up six minutes on their way to three points. So, go ahead: order the tiramisu whilst I nibble on a peppermint that Grandma found at the bottom of her purse. I’ll be just fine.
Stop and think if the whole “game management” aspect of this season’s offense seems familiar. If not, remember: you’re making me do this… That’s right, in his first career start, Brady hit 13 of 23 passes for 168 yards. Zero interceptions, zero touchdowns. His longest pass was a 58-yarder to running back Antowain Smith (whose name I spelled correctly on the first try, thank you very much). Smith and Troy Brown tied for most receptions with three apiece. Of course, long-time fans remember that this was a 44-13 behind-the-woodshed beating of the Colts, as the Pats picked off young Peyton Manning three times.
As the spear-wielding Spartan said to the Persian, there’s the point. The 2001 version of Brady didn’t have to win games; he had to keep them close. Anyone who understands football will avoid the comparison of Cassel to Brady: it’s like comparing apples to Hall-of-Fame-bound oranges. Cassel chucked the ball deep once, an underthrown pass to Moss. His longest completion of the day came on the aforementioned Welker screen, the ball hitting its target one yard short of the line of scrimmage. Cassel’s next-longest was a 22-yard screen to Faulk (sprung by solid blocks from Light, Gaffney and Billy Yates) that set up New England’s only touchdown, a Morris up-and-over plunge that gave the visitors a 13-3 midway through the third.
After an eight-play drive (including seven runs) that began on New York’s 39 led to another field goal to make it 16-3 late in the third, the visitors had a chance to close this one out. Instead, Favre gave a reason for fans to cheer at Giants Stadium (not Allianz Stadium. Dude, seriously, someone forgot to do research). In under five minutes, Favre led the Jets on a 10-play possession, converting the only third-down necessary on a 19-yard completion to tight end Dustin Keller. New York ran a perfect pick play (safety Rodney Harrison was clipped by his own man on an end-zone crossing route), freeing up a soft, two-yard pass to Chansi Stuckey (which may be the name of a nightclub dancer and/or country singer). With over ten minutes left, the home team had shortened the lead to 16-10. New England’s comfy cushion had a tear in it.
Time to protect the Cassel (what, I can’t get in on the fun?). The starting QB hit two passes in a row for 14 yards each (to Moss and David Thomas, respectively). After the long incompletion to Moss and an 8-yard LaMont Jordan run, Cassel got roughed up by linebacker Calvin Pace, tacking 15 penalty yards onto a 4-yard pass to Morris. A short toss to Welker and three runs by Jordan later, New England went for it on third and six from New York’s nine. Cassel’s pass was tipped by Pace and fluttered incomplete, but Gostkowski’s field goal made it 19-10 with 5:16 left.
Possibly fueled by the crunching special teams tackle of Ray Ventrone on the ensuing kickoff (had to get in a Bubba reference for the week), the Patriots’ D made quick work of the Jets’ final possession. On second and three, Favre found a bulldozer in the form of Adalius Thomas closing in on him. The QB backpedaled and tried to fend off Thomas with a straightarm as running back Leon Washington attempted to block. Thomas latched onto Favre’s jersey and tossed him like a sack of laundry, Washington doing little more than getting caught up in the pile. After the 20-yard sack, Favre’s pass towards Laveranues Coles failed to get by Ellis Hobbs. Easy. (Or at least, easier than spelling Coles’ first name. Go ahead: try it.)
Very little this year will come easily to the Patriots. They will need to avoid turnovers and lower opponents’ third-down conversion rate to remain competitive (the Jets got six firsts on 12 third downs Sunday). They will need to score more touchdowns and fewer field goals while preventing opponents’ long drives. They will, in effect, have to be more like the 2001 Patriots. They might have gotten on the right track, judging by these (albeit superficial) similarities:
Avoiding turnovers like they’re on a no-baked-goods diet: No fumbles, no interceptions. That’s almost always a good week.
Forget Champagne: The Patriots got their kicks from Gostkowski, who hit all four of his field goal attempts and consistently kicked off into the end zone. (Seriously, Gostkowski had more nice boots than Designer Shoe Warehouse.) Chris Hanson had a 59-yard punt, but he sent too many into the end zone for touchbacks. Hanson needs to be more like Timmy on “Lassie.” In other words, befriend the pooch. (The pooch punt. No? Vague reference? Okay, forget I said anything, but would it kill the guy to land the ball inside the 20?)
In short, pass: Welker. Faulk. Morris. One of these days (Miami might prove a fertile testing ground) the short stuff will open up the longer shots. Getting Moss into the flow (two catches, 22 yards) will help the offense grow every week.
Four ground: If New England can average four yards per carry, they should be able to establish a rhythm, take time off the clock, and move the ball. The problem? The top two Pats backs combined for 16 carries for 16 yards (by my calculations, that’s one yard per carry. You’re welcome). The solution might be Jordan, who piled up 62 yards on 11 carries. Now, if Jordan started next week, few would expect him to average 5.6 yards per rush; however, giving him a few more attempts early on might keep a defense on its heels and provide a stronger contrast to the shifty Faulk (three runs, 16 yards).
What’s their line?: Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork all deserve credit for helping to keep the Jets out of the end zone on two early possessions, along with Mike Wright. Early in the second, after the defense gave up a 54-yard pass to Coles and an 11-yard run to Washington, the line held fast on three straight rushing attempts from the 3-yard line. They allowed Tedy Bruschi and Harrison to make plays, then took over on third and goal from the one when Seymour dropped Thomas Jones for a two-yard loss. On the whole, the Patriots allowed too much on the ground (104 yards on 21 carries), but they followed to the bend-don’t-break philosophy that held New York to 10 points.
With the program: This year more than last, contributions must come from a larger circle of players. Sunday, rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo had seven tackles, all solo. Faulk averaged 17 yards per punt return. Jordan led the team in rushing. Brandon Meriweather had the game’s lone interception to set up New England’s only TD from the Jets’ 31. Gaffney, nowhere in the stat line, had consistent blocking downfield to spring his teammates for essential yards-after-catch.
This win resulted from the type of team effort the Pats will have to put up every week. No, it’s not always pretty, but – like a lopsided cake from a first-time baker – it’s going to taste just as sweet as any other dessert. Maybe even better.