Well, the Patriots are back in the win column after a nice victory over San Francisco. Granted, the 49ers aren't exactly an NFC powerhouse, but as the Dolphins showed last week, no team in the NFL can be taken for granted, and marked down for a defeat before you actually play the game.
It'd be great to go into the heroes for the Patriots on Sunday. But first, it's important to apologize for a few things.
1. Apologies to...the Patriots defense. So maligned after the Week 3 drubbing against Miami, the group of old guys proved they can still play football. After the 49ers scored easily twice in the opening quarter, the New England defense stiffened and allowed no points until San Francisco finally got back in sync late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots tackled, grouped up on the ball carrier and, as evidenced by interceptions from Brandon Meriweather and Rodney Harrison, made the big play. Plus, for the fourth straight game, the secondary didn't allow the big 40-yard play that kills momentum.
2. Apologies to...the Patriots offensive line. True, five sacks showed that the concerns aired during the bye week have some substance to them, but Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Russ Hochstein, Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins had several huge blocks during scoring drives and when the Patriots were trying to run out the clock. And on the decisive fourth-down direct snap to Kevin Faulk for the touchdown, he had a hole to run through that was carved out by Light, Mankins and Koppen on the left side.
3. Apologies to...Randy Moss. Last week (according to the ever generous Boston media), he was the brooding Randy Moss, the Randy Moss who was incapable of putting up big numbers again. The new co-captain of the New England Patriots set the record straight, both before Sunday's game, and during. No. 81 showed that he still has the tools that have made him the game's most dangerous receiver. With five catches for 111 yards and a touchdown, Randy showed that he's not just back. He never left.
4. Apologies to...Matt Cassel. New England was able to take a deep breath with the latest outing from No. 16. Against Miami, Cassel looked lost, confused, timid and slow. Against the 49ers, Cassel looked terrific. After two mistakes to start the game, Matt recovered. He sent shockwaves throughout Candlestick Park with a 66-yard lightning strike to Moss for a touchdown, began finding Wes Welker, Moss and Ben Watson for 10-yard gains to put points on the board, and helped set up the running game which kept the Patriots' offense on the field and gave J.T. O'Sullivan and Co. very few chances to work miracles late in the game.
But more important than what Cassel did was how he looked. Early on, he looked like the awkward quarterback we saw against Miami. As the game progressed, he settled, and began to look like the man he replaced. He found the open receivers. He stood in the pocket as the offensive line held around him. On one play, he took a shot from 49er linebacker Patrick Willis, but not before hitting Kevin Faulk with a short pass that went to the San Francisco two-yard line.
A few plays later, Cassel performed his magnum opus. On 4th-and-goal from the two-yard line, the Patriots called a direct snap, one of the hallmarks of the Brady-run offenses. Cassel sold it perfectly. He jumped out of the way, threw up his hands to fake the lost snap, and caught the 49er defense off guard as Faulk scampered in for the touchdown. Vintage Brady, and vintage Patriot result.
If nothing else, Cassel showed he can handle the job. He can hit Moss deep, he can find Wes Welker for eight to 10 catches, and he can read the defenses and move the ball. The Patriots don't need him to be Brady. After what we saw Sunday, this should be good enough.