EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Patriots had a message for those reveling in their Tom Brady-less state and they delivered it loud and clear with a 19-10 win over the New York Jets yesterday: Our starting quarterback may have gone down for the season, but we’re not going down this season without a fight, whether we have Matt Cassel or Sam Cassell at quarterback.
The 78,554 at Giants Stadium had come to celebrate the Patriots’ demise but instead they were witnesses to their remarkable resiliency, as New England showed the Jets that they’re still the team to beat in the AFC East.
"I’m proud of the way guys stepped up and played," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I thought we played a Jets team that was riding high after last week’s big win against Miami ... A lot of people didn’t expect us to do much, but those guys came in with a lot of determination."
On paper the quarterback matchup seemed like a mismatch - certain Hall of Famer Brett Favre under center for the Jets (1-1), making his NFL-record 277th straight start vs. Cassel, who was making his first start at quarterback in a meaningful game since 1999, when he was at Chatsworth High in Southern California.
However, Cassel (16 of 23 for 165 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions) proved more patient and more precise than Brett the Jet. He was calm, calculating, and competent executing a game plan that merely asked him to manage the game and not mangle it. Cassel hit his first four passes and seven of his first eight to help the Patriots to a 6-0 lead and never looked back.
"He can get it done," said left tackle Matt Light. "That’s not anything that we questioned. It was just a matter of going out there and doing it, giving him the experience of being the guy. It’s different when you’re the starter, and he handled it great."
Playing without Brady, out for the season with torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, for the first time in 128 games (including the playoffs) the Patriots (2-0) led, 6-3, at the half, having been held without a touchdown in the first half for the first time since Dec. 10, 2006, when they were shut out by the Miami Dolphins. That was also the last time they lost during the regular season, a span of 21 straight wins.
Surprisingly, it was Broadway Brett, the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, passing yards, and completions, not the callow Cassel, who blinked first. In the third quarter, Favre gambled on a second-and-25 pass from his 24 and was picked off by safety Brandon Meriweather, who made his first career interception, and returned the ball to the New York 31.
The Patriots felt if they were patient Favre (18 of 26 for 181 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) would lose his patience at some point and make a miscue.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, I mean he’s the all-time leader in picks for a reason," said Harrison. "He’s also a Hall of Famer. That’s not to discredit him, but stats don’t lie."
With big help from a 22-yard screen pass to Kevin Faulk (four catches, 50 yards) on third down, the Patriots pushed the ball to the Jets’ 8, and on third and goal, Sammy Morris hurdled into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown and a 13-3 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, capitalizing on Favre’s faux pas.
The Patriots extended their lead to 16-3 on Gostkowski’s third field goal after Faulk set them up at the Jets’ 39 with a 24-yard punt return. But Favre wasn’t ready to fold. He marched the Jets 80 yards in 10 plays, going 6 for 6 for 51 yards on the drive, which ended with him finding Chansi Stuckey for a 2-yard scoring pass with 10:18 left to trim New England’s lead to 16-10.
But the Patriots, who ran the ball 33 times - compared to 26 passing plays, including sacks - for 104 yards turned to their running backs again to help Cassel close it out. Morris came up with a huge third-down conversion catch on third and 2 from the Jets’ 44, and onetime Jets runner LaMont Jordan, who led the Patriots with 11 rushes for 62 yards, ran four times for 21 yards to set up Gostkowski’s fourth field goal of the game (27 yards).
The Patriots defense then forced New York to go three-and-out with a huge sack by linebacker Adalius Thomas, who fended off running back Leon Washington to fling down Favre for a 20-yard loss on second down, and Cassel and Co. relied on the running backs to run out the remaining 3:45 and make Cassel’s first start a win.
"It’s not ever about the doubters," said Cassel. "It’s always about the belief in yourself, and I’ve always had belief in myself that I could go out there and do it. So, it was definitely a fulfilling day."
But for Randy Moss and the rest of the Patriots it was all about the doubters and proving them wrong - at least for one game.
"I don’t think there is one person in my face with this microphone that picked us to win," said Moss. "I’m going to end [my interview this way]: The New England Patriots [are] 2-0. We got one in the division, so all you haters keep hating. We’re coming."