AFC East: Cardinals-Patriots
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Matt Cassel faced yet another situation he never before had encountered and conquered it.
"Anytime you can go out there and put together a good performance and the elements were what they were and playing in the snow, it's a lot of fun," Cassel said. "It kind of takes you back to your childhood days."
Really? Lot of snow in Northridge, Calif., is there?
Cassel must've been referring to how his teammates felt. Wes Welker made a snow angel after finishing off one of Cassel's three catch-and-run touchdown tosses.
"I've never played in snow before, so it was a first for me," Cassel admitted. "But it actually was a lot of fun."
Cassel amassed 345 yards and a 116.1 passer rating. He has thrown for at least three touchdowns and has posted a rating of 103.4 or higher four times in the past six games.
But Cassel doesn't deserve all the credit for his gaudy numbers in the snow.
The Patriots capitalized on the limited traction to complete quick passes that turned into long gains.
"We had an emphasis all week about run after catch," Cassel said, "because we knew the elements would be as such that we know what we're doing. They don't. So we have the advantage."
Video analysis by Tobin Petitpas of ESPN Stats and Analysis found that Cassel completed 7 of 10 attempts behind the line of scrimmage, and those plays went for 161 yards. Only six of Cassel's 20 completions traveled beyond 10 yards in the air.
"What you do tell the players in these types of conditions is that there are quite a few big plays to be had on a field like this," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "You can take a short gain and make a huge play out of it.
"We talked to them about catch-and-run plays on this kind of a surface. Our guys did a good job of keeping their feet and doing something with the ball after they had it."
|AP Photo/Winslow Townson|
|Neither the snow nor the Cardinals could hold Matt Cassel and the rest of the New England Patriots back as they cruised to their 10th win, 47-7 over Arizona.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ten wins ought to be enough to get into the playoffs. Eleven should be automatic.
The New England Patriots are playing the best of any AFC East club and probably will finish the season 11-5, but they aren't in control.
Even if the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills next Sunday to finish 2008 with 11 victories, a few teams hold a hammer over the defending AFC champs.
"We're rolling the dice each weekend, and we keep hitting them," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Now we need some other guys to crap out."
The Patriots were dominant Sunday in defeating the shivering Arizona Cardinals 47-7 in snowy Gillette Stadium. Then they finally got some help. The New York Jets came up small in a 13-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
The Dolphins beat the Kansas City Chiefs and would claim the AFC East crown next week by defeating the Jets in the season finale at the Meadowlands. The Dolphins also would be 11-5, but take precedence over the Patriots because of a better conference record.
The Ravens will clinch the final wild-card berth if they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens also would finish 11-5 but get in because of a tiebreaker.
Not since the 1985 Denver Broncos has a team won 11 games and not qualified for the postseason.
"We just want to try and get 11 wins and see if it is good enough," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "I don't even know all the scenarios yet, but the best we can do in the regular season right now is 11 victories. We are going to work our butt off to try and get that."
The Patriots, meanwhile, clubbed a Cardinals team that is 8-7 but clinched its playoff spot a while ago. The San Diego Chargers can get into the playoffs with an 8-8 record if they beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
No complaints were uttered in New England's locker room about the playoff scenarios. Rather than rail for a revamped system, the Patriots pointed a collective finger at themselves for not winning one more game earlier in the season.
"That's why you play 16 games in the regular season, so situations like this won't happen," Hobbs said. "Unfortunately, we weren't taking care of business in the beginning -- or taking care of business enough."
Some tough losses exist on the Patriots' schedule. Jabar Gaffney bungled an apparent touchdown pass that could have helped them beat the Indianapolis Colts. A coin flip might have made the difference in an overtime loss to the Jets. Randy Moss dropped a touchdown pass just before halftime that could have changed the tone of their home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We have no one to be frustrated with but ourselves," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "We lost five games. That's all on us. If we wouldn't have lost those, we wouldn't have anything to worry about."
But the Patriots don't have any bad losses on paper. Their five defeats came against teams that have either clinched a playoff berth already or could get in with a victory in the season finale.
Despite being ransacked by myriad injuries, the Patriots are playing better than anybody else in the division.
Yes, the Dolphins are winning at a phenomenal rate, taking four games in a row and eight of their past nine. But the Dolphins have barely beaten many of the NFL's worst teams. They needed a late touchdown drive to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 38-31 on Sunday.
The Patriots have scored 96 points over the past two weeks and have scored at least 47 in three of their past five games, including a 48-28 victory in Dolphin Stadium. They've won three straight road games, including consecutive victories on the West Coast in which they didn't return home in between.
New England has won 11 straight games in December. Two more cool streaks apropos to nothing about the playoff chase: New England has won an NFL-record 15 straight games against nonconference opponents and is 10-0 all-time when it snows in Foxborough.
The Jets, meanwhile, are reeling. They've lost three out of their past four games, all against teams they were favored to beat. Their lone post-Thanksgiving triumph was miraculous. The Bills fumbled while doing a poor job of trying to run out the clock, and the Jets returned it for a touchdown and a most improbable 31-27 victory.
Yet there are the Patriots, still winning, still playing well.
And maybe out of the playoffs.
"You think about when the season starts and how there are so many front-runners, and you think about all those teams that started out so well in the beginning and have fallen off at the end," Hobbs said. "You just have to take it for what it is and just keep playing ball and just hope for the best."
CBS Sports analyst Charley Cassely leaned on some of his contacts and discovered New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's rebuilt left knee no longer is infected, putting Brady on schedule to be ready for the start of 2009.
Casserly, the former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general managers, reported Brady's update Sunday on "NFL Today."
"Good news for the New England Patriots and Tom Brady," Casserly said. "He's off antibiotics. The infection he had when he had the repair of his knee when he had the ACL is gone. Therefore he's back on his rehab schedule and should be ready for training camp and the season next year."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots aren't going away.
In fact, they're looming more than they have all season.
The Patriots went into Sunday the only team among the AFC East-leading threesome not in control of their own destiny, but they remain very much a factor after walloping the Arizona Cardinals 47-7 in the snow globe that was Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots are 10-5 and play the Buffalo Bills in next week's season finale. While the Patriots could win 11 games and not make the playoffs, the Cardinals are 8-7 and have ensured their spot by clinching the harmless NFC West.
The Patriots could become the first 11-win club to miss the postseason since the NFL adopted its current format in 1990 if the Baltimore Ravens beat the Jacksonville Jaguars as expected next week to finish 11-5 and both the Jets and Dolphins win today.
The Ravens hold the tiebreaker and would take the second wild-card berth. The Indianapolis Colts earned the first wild-card entry.
Cassel's phenomenal season continued. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
A few notes from the first quarter, with thanks to ESPN researcher Mark Simon:
- The Cardinals have allowed at least 21 points in the first quarter three times in their past four games.
- LaMont Jordan scored the Patriots' first two touchdowns. It's his fourth career multi-TD game, but his first since Week 12 in 2005. He never before had scored two in the same quarter.
- Kevin Faulk had the other Patriots touchdown in the first quarter on a 15-yard catch and run. He has 14 career receiving touchdowns and 14 career rushing touchdowns.
- The Patriots haven't lost a game in which Faulk has scored a touchdown since December 20, 2004. They're 7-0 in that span.
The New York Jets aren't enjoying the 1 o'clock games.
As they await their game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field, they're coming to the realization they won't be getting any outside help in their bid to win the AFC East.
The Miami Dolphins scored on their first play from scrimmage, a 31-yard Ted Ginn reverse, and have tacked on a field goal to lead the Kansas City Chiefs, 10-0, with that game only 3:08 old. The Chiefs responded with a touchdown, and that score is 10-7 as I type this.
The New England Patriots needed only 3:47 to turn their first possession into a touchdown and scored on their second, too. They lead the Arizona Cardinals, 14-0, with 3:46 to go in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The sledding just got a little smoother for the New England Patriots.
Notable from the Patriots' inactive list is that Pro Bowl tackle Matt Light isn't on it. He will play despite a shoulder problem that limited him in practice all week.
Here are the rest of the scratches for the game:
- QB Brian St. Pierre
- RB J.J. Arrington
- DE/LB Travis LaBoy
- T Elliot Vallejo
- T Brandon Keith
- DT Alan Branch
- TE Jerame Tuman
- QB Matt Gutierrez
- RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
- S James Sanders
- LB Tedy Bruschi
- LB Gary Guyton
- G/C Dan Connolly
- T Wesley Britt
- G Billy Yates
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the Iditarod trail to Gillette Stadium for Sunday's game between the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots, I heard an interesting AFC East debate on Boston sports station WEEI.
If you're another AFC playoff team, do you dread a first-round draw against whoever represents the AFC East?
Pregame host Mike Felger, analyst and former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria, NBCSports.com columnist Tom Curran and Patriots Football Weekly reporter Paul Perillo came to the conclusion nobody would be scared of the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins or Patriots.
The Patriots have Bill Belichick. The Dolphins don't commit turnovers or beat themselves. The Jets, with their seven Pro Bowlers, probably are the most talented of the three teams.
But the panel ranked the likely AFC playoff teams and decided only the Denver Broncos would be a more desirable first-round opponent.
What do you think?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Greetings from Gillette Stadium, where I have finally arrived after a treacherous drive from Providence, R.I., in my hearse ... I mean, my black PT Cruiser. Thanks, Hertz!
A steady, fluffy snow has been falling all morning. On the field below, John Deere tractors are plowing snow off the tarps so the grounds crew can roll them up.
But the snow is coming down heavy enough that the freshly uncovered field already is completely white. The Patriots' end zone logos are covered. We can barely see Pat Patriots at midfield, but he won't be around much longer.
The conditions would seem to favor the Patriots, who practiced outdoors this week.
Maybe the Cardinals did, too, but amid the saguaros.
The Cardinals already have wrapped up the NFC West and have nothing to play for except their health. It's a perfect day to run for the bus and get warm.
The three AFC East teams that don't play in a tropical climate broke from their normal routines and practiced outside this week to prepare for nasty weather in the Northeast and the other side of the continent.
The forecast for every AFC East game is inhospitable, and they all have playoff implications.
Here are the matchups with the Weather Channel's projected kickoff conditions:
- Arizona Cardinals at New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium (33 degrees, 70 percent chance of snow, 18 mph winds).
- Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium (8 degrees, mostly sunny, 8 mph winds).
- New York Jets at Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field (32 degrees, 70 percent chance of snow, 8 mph winds).
- Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High (15 degrees, partly cloudy, 8 mph winds).
The Jets rarely practice outside in the snow, but head coach Eric Mangini made an exception this week.
"I've always seen value in that," Mangini said of practicing in wintry elements. "You can't simulate it. You can talk about it. You can try to educate on it, but until you do it, it's different.
"We practice a lot in the rain and the cold, all the different elements. It's real value to it if you can draw from the experiences the next time you face that stuff. With this situation, we're talking about just a couple of days."
Bills coach Dick Jauron on Thursday took his team outside the field house for the first time in a month.
Bill Belichick also took his Patriots outside this week.
"I think it definitely helps," said Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, according to Boston Globe reporter Mike Reiss' blog. "Whether it's cold or windy, whatever it is, it's always good to get used to it in practice. It gets your blood thickened up a little bit.
"It's always good to make it tougher for yourself during the week so it seems easier on game day."
Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said he would practice in a freezer if he could, but the best he could do in South Florida was put a bunch of footballs on ice to get quarterback Chad Pennington and his receivers a tiny hint.
Of all the matchups involving teams tied for first place in the AFC East, this one looks like the most difficult. The Patriots should win, mind you, but their opponents won't be as easy to beat as the ones the Dolphins and Jets will face.
The Patriots are hurting on defense and have been coping for some time. But they haven't faced a passing team like Kurt Warner's Cardinals since losing to the Colts in Week 9.
After getting lit up by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in Week 6, the Patriots have fared well against offenses which predominantly pass.
The Patriots limited the Broncos (ranked No. 3 in pass offense) to seven points and 169 passing yards in a Week 7 victory and, two games later, held the Colts (ranked No. 6 in pass offense) to two touchdowns and 202 passing yards.
The Dolphins are one of the NFL's hottest teams, having won seven of their past eight games.
The Dolphins control their own destiny in the AFC East. They still could lose Sunday and be in position to win the division in the season finale against the Jets. But falling to the wretched Chiefs sure wouldn't put the Dolphins in a pleasant frame of mind heading into the crucial, final week.
Just because the Chiefs have won a pair of games, don't assume this will be a walkover. The Dolphins have done just enough to win since early November.
In their past five victories (over the wilted Seahawks, Raiders, Rams, Bills and 49ers), the Dolphins' average margin of victory has been 7.2 points even though they haven't allowed a touchdown over their last three. Take out the 13-point win over the Bills and the margin drops to 3.3 points.
Miami's offense will have another chance to break out before the season goes on the line next week at the Meadowlands. Kansas City ranks dead last in total offense and 30th in both run defense and pass defense.
Then again, the Seahawks rank 30th in total defense, the Rams rank 29th and the Raiders rank 26th.
The Jets are 0-3 on the West Coast, 0-4 in games that kick off at 4 p.m. and 1-5 when they don't play at 1 p.m.
So their game won't be a run-of-the-mill showdown between clubs with a six-win differential. Qwest Field also should be livelier than normal because Mike Holmgren will be coaching his final home game for the Seahawks.
Even so, if the slouching Jets can get past all of that, then the Seahawks could serve as perfect foes. The Seahawks rank 30th in total defense and rock bottom in pass defense.
Brett Favre has thrown three touchdowns and five interceptions in his past four games, but that's OK. Only one team has intercepted fewer passes than Seattle's six.
The Bills were realistically eliminated from the playoff race a few weeks ago and mathematically snuffed in last Sunday's gift-wrapped defeat to the Jets in the Meadowlands.
What a disgusting season after such a promising start. How the Bills play out the string might provide a glimpse of what's to come next year from a character standpoint.
Trent Edwards likely will return from his groin injury, and he's a quarterback in desperate need of a couple of pick-me-up performances heading into the offseason. The second-year pro was the toast of the AFC through the first third of the campaign. Now Bills fans are wondering if he's the long-term answer.
The Broncos have the 28th-rated defense. They're 27th in pass defense. Edwards and Lee Evans, another disappointment after signing one of the NFL's richest contract extensions for a receiver, could use a boffo afternoon.
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How fathomable would this scene have been four years ago? Four months ago?
"I think as a backup quarterback, as a competitor, anytime you want to be out there," Cassel said. "You want to be playing. So that part's very difficult."
Leinart won the Heisman Trophy in 2004. Cassel, until Week 2 of his fourth pro season, hadn't started a game since high school. He backed up Leinart and another Heisman winner, Carson Palmer, at Southern California.
Now Leinart is considered a flop and buried behind MVP candidate Kurt Warner. Palmer's stuck in Cincinnati and hurt again.
Yet, there was Cassel, starting quarterback for a first-place club, sympathizing with his buddy Leinart, who he will chat with -- but probably not play against -- Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
"When you're able to step back and learn from a guy like Kurt, because he's so good and because he's so established, you can learn a lot of things," Cassel said. "Then when Matt is ready to go and he steps in to take over that team, he'll be ready and probably more prepared than what he was."
|Cary Edmondson/US Presswire|
|Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel has turned some heads with his performance this season filling in for Tom Brady.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
There might still be some Matt Cassel doubters out there.
Among NFL insiders, however, the New England Patriots quarterback is viewed with a high degree of respect. Their admiration of Cassel has only grown with the way he has carried himself the past 10 days.
"If you loved him before, you love him a little more today," ESPN analyst and former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said.
With a heavy heart, Cassel on Sunday threw a career-high four touchdown passes in a 49-26 road victory over the Oakland Raiders. Earlier last week, Cassel's father was found dead. The funeral wasn't held until Tuesday.
"You could see the pain in his eyes," former NFL executive Michael Lombardi said after watching behind-the-scenes NFL Films footage of the Patriots' week. "It's just very, very dramatic."
Sunday might be remembered as the signature performance of Cassel's breakout season.
Cassel briefly left the team and missed an important practice, but -- on the same field Brett Favre famously threw four touchdown passes the day his father died in 2003 -- he was sensational. Cassel would've finished with even more prolific numbers Sunday had the game not been so lopsided.
"To have the wherewithal or ability or gumption or whatever it takes to be able to pull off what he did was indeed special," Reese said. "There's a lot of us in the football world who think we're pretty tough, but when something like that comes along it brings you to your knees. For him to be able to pull it off was a special performance."