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Sam Farmer ON THE NFL

Winning despite a big loss

Patriots play differently without Brady, but Cassel makes few mistakes and fans see many signs of hope in a victory over the Jets.

September 15, 2008|Sam Farmer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- So you can't stand the New England Patriots?

You were hoping they would circle the drain now that Tom Brady is on crutches? Praying that Bill Belichick would be exposed without the benefit of the NFL's reigning most valuable player?

Well, you're in for a long season.

These aren't the same Patriots, but their radar blip is bright as ever.

With quarterback Matt Cassel making precious few mistakes, and a defense that looked as good as it did at any point last season, New England spoiled Brett Favre's home debut with the Jets on Sunday with a 19-10 victory at the Meadowlands.

Belichick aced this litmus test. He even showed a flicker of emotion as he walked into the interview room, flashing a smile before he stepped up to the podium and reprising his familiar role as the coach that joy forgot.

Cassel, meanwhile, just couldn't bring himself to be robotic. He joked about the story of the week, how this was his first start since 1999 when he was a senior at Chatsworth High.

"It was my first start since, what, the seventh grade?" he said, smiling and swabbing the sweat from his face.

"It was exciting. I went out there and it felt good. I didn't have too many butterflies. When you get out there and start playing, it just comes down to playing football. You just have to have fun and execute the offense."

Cassel wasn't Brady, nor did the Patriots ask him to be. He chipped away at the Jets with screens and underneath passes, and leaned heavily on the running game. He almost never went deep, but in one of the rare times that he did, he underthrew a wide-open Randy Moss, which allowed cornerback Darrelle Revis to break up the pass.

"I talked to Tom a lot" over the last week, Cassel said. "We had many different conversations on many different aspects of the game. His big advice was to go out there, manage the game, be smart with the football, and that we have enough good players on this team to win if I do that."

Cassel's line: 16 for 23 for 165 yards with no touchdowns but no interceptions.

If he continues to do that, his Patriots are going to win a lot of games this season -- at least 10 -- and win them the way they did in the pre-Moss days, by the narrowest of margins. They will win a lot of games with defense.

But that's not to say the Patriots will walk away with the AFC East again. Buffalo, which has beaten Seattle and Jacksonville, could wind up being the best team in that division.

The schedule sets up well for the Patriots, though. They play Miami and at San Francisco before an Oct. 12 game at San Diego.

Even better for New England, some of the recently elite AFC teams have slipped. Indianapolis is a wobbly 1-1, and San Diego, Jacksonville and Cleveland are 0-2. But Pittsburgh and Denver are off to 2-0 starts, and the Patriots will face both in Foxborough.

Favre or no Favre, the Jets have a long way to go. They won their opener against a Miami team that was 1-15 last season, and they did very little Sunday to suggest that they're a vastly improved team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm.

At one point, they had a first and goal at the three-yard line, and -- instead of letting Favre pass -- the Jets ran it into the line three times and kicked a field goal. It was more than curious. It was crazy. Then again, Favre didn't question the decision.

"I don't second-guess Schotty's calls one bit," he said, referring to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. "Would I have liked to have thrown it? I'd like to throw every play, but you're not going to win that way.

"We have the offensive line to do it, we have the running backs to do it, and I know what Bill [Belichick] is saying over there: that they have the defense to stop it. They stopped it today."

That smothering defense includes right end Richard Seymour, truly healthy for the first time in two seasons; outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who late in the game sacked Favre for a loss of 20 yards -- you read that correctly, 20 -- and rookie middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who fits nicely into a cluster of All-Pros.

Those players are really going to help lighten the load on Cassel this season.

And, although his knee injury will keep him off the field, Brady is around to help.

He was like a ghost at team headquarters last week. Once, a TV cameraman spotted him leaving. Another time, a reporter noticed a pair of slippers at his locker. The quarterback's only public statement was a text message thumbed out to NBCSports.com's Tom Curran.

"Everything will be OK," Brady wrote. "I'm excited to see what our team is made of. I still like our chances."

Sunday, we saw why.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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