News flash: Matt Cassel is an inexperienced quarterback.
News flash: Bill Belichick is a smart coach.
News flash: The Patriots are capable of improving from week to week, and learning from their mistakes.
Today the Patriots adjusted not only to the mistakes they made last time out against Miami, but also to some miscues that had them trailing San Francisco early in this game.
Randy Moss has been making noise about wanting "touchdowns, not field goals," oh, and also the ball. Cassel went to Moss a couple times early on - once with a long bomb for a beautiful touchdown in the first half. But the next time he tried to go the long-bomb-to-Moss route, he got an interception for his troubles. He's not an experienced enough driver to take that particular high-octane vehicle out for a spin at will like Brady used to; that's just a fact.
By the end of the second quarter, though, the Patriots switched Cassel to a steady diet of short passes to Welker and Moss and gained traction with a balanced running game that saw contributions from Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and LaMont Jordan, the latter before he went down with an injury in the second quarter.
The Patriots actually gained 233 of their 377 total net yards today on passes from Cassel, but two of the three touchdowns New England scored were rushing touchdowns. Factor in three field goals and that 111 of the total passing yards were gained by receivers--and you have a nice balance between Cassel showing improvement, and his veteran teammates and coaching staff also shouldering much of the load.
The game against Miami showed some defensive vulnerabilities, particularly against the running game, that were troubling. Give them two weeks, though, and the Patriots were not only holding San Francisco to a pathetic 3 first downs rushing, but the Patriots pass defense also showed an ability to stiffen up, holding the 9ers to an 11% third down conversion rate. Rodney Harrison in particular seemed to have shifted up a gear for this game, with a big interception in the third quarter.
It was also Harrison that delivered the final defensive coup de grace for San Francisco's QB, JT O'Sullivan, in the fourth quarter, first with a tipped pass that Deltha O'Neal caught for the third San Fran turnover of the game, and then by flying in out of nowhere to elbow the ball out of Arnaz Battle's arm in the waning seconds.
On the offensive side, the line also showed marked improvement over the previous ordeal against Miami. Matt Light was clutch, pancaking linebackers and opening holes for the backs. Most of the successful Patriots runs were off the left side today--including Kevin Faulk's touchdowns. They even took a page directly from Miami's playbook in week 3 for the second of those TDs, with a direct snap to Faulk on the 2-yard line.
Both the Patriots and 49ers entered this game in second place in their respective divisions, and both started inexperienced quarterbacks. But by the end of the game, only one of those QBs was looking rattled, while the other was holding his own, surrounded by veteran teammates.
Cassel's still wet behind the ears, and he's going to make mistakes. Gone are the days this team could be wholly focused on what to "take away" from opponents, and instead its vulnerabilities do sometimes take weapons away from them, like the long passing game today. But the all-or-nothing idea that this is a "lost season" for the Patriots without Brady is looking more foolish by the minute.