FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots keep losing parts, but they haven't lost their rightful place atop the AFC East.
That's where they find themselves today after a 23-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams yesterday at Gillette Stadium. That come-from-behind win, which was sealed by Deltha O'Neal's interception of Rams quarterback Marc Bulger at the Patriots' 16-yard line with just over a minute remaining, coupled with Buffalo's loss to Miami, put New England in a tie for the division lead with a 5-2 record as it heads to Indianapolis next week.
"I think our position right now in the AFC East is not a bad position," said defensive end Ty Warren. "It gives us a chance.
"[I'm] not saying that the division is already won or anything like that, but we're heading in the right direction and that's a good thing.
"We're having fun doing it. We're having fun coming to work every week and blocking out all the speculations and criticisms of guys like [Matt] Cassel and people speculating and not really knowing how he's going to come along."
Criticism is one thing, season-ending injuries to Tom Brady, safety Rodney Harrison, and running back Laurence Maroney are another.
With the run of injuries this season, the Patriots should consider adopting a red cross as their alternate logo.
New England started yesterday's game without its top two remaining running backs, Sammy Morris (knee) and LaMont Jordan (right calf), and watched both starting cornerbacks, Ellis Hobbs (shoulder) and O'Neal (head) exit with injuries.
Yesterday was a street fight against the rejuvenated Rams, who had won two straight following an 0-4 start.
Even with Steven Jackson, the Rams' leading rusher and receiver, rendered hors de combat by a bruised right thigh muscle, the Patriots needed a career day from Cassel (21 of 33 for a career-high 267 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions) and another clutch play from running back Kevin Faulk (13 rushes for 60 yards, four receptions for 47 yards) to repel the Rams.
After Stephen Gostkowski tied the game at 16 on a 41-yard field goal, his third of the game, Cassel got the ball back at his 47 with 6:57 to go. Seven plays later he found Faulk, who had beaten Rams linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, in the end zone for a 15-yard score and a 23-16 Patriots lead with 3:13 to go.
"It was a great catch," said Cassel, who made a terrific throw. "He made a great move on the linebacker. He was in one-on-one coverage, and I just tried to put it out there and give him the opportunity to make the catch. He did what Kevin Faulk does best."
The combination of Faulk's clutch catch and O'Neal's interception allowed the Patriots, who led, 13-10, at halftime after Gostkowski drilled a 27-yard field goal on the final play of the half, to overcome a third quarter in which they squandered possession of the ball four times but it only cost them a pair of field goals.
"We were scrambling in the third quarter," said coach Bill Belichick.
Rams coach Jim Haslett pulled out all the stops, going for it on fourth and 1 from his 41 on the Rams' first drive, which ended in a field goal, and opening the second half with an onside kick.
Both gambits worked, although the Rams weren't able to turn the onside kick into points.
However, St. Louis picked off two of Cassel's first six passes of the second half. On New England's first possession of the third quarter, Cassel tried to squeeze a throw into Randy Moss, but it was deflected by Fakhir Brown and picked off by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who returned it 13 yards to the New England 43.
St. Louis then tied the game (13-13) with a 44-yard field from Josh Brown.
Cassel was intercepted again when Wes Welker slipped and Cassel's pass landed in the arms of Fakhir Brown at the St. Louis 26, although the Rams then went three and out.
On New England's next drive, on fourth and 1 from the St. Louis 36, Belichick tried to match Haslett's go-for-broke approach, but it backfired as rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who drew the start and had muscled his way in from the 2 for the Patriots' first touchdown, was tripped up by Clifton Ryan.
Bulger, who threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to rookie Donnie Avery in the second quarter, the longest completion of the QB's career, then connected with Avery for a 44-yard gain down to the Patriots' 20.
But the Patriots defense forced Bulger, who was 18 of 34 for 301 yards, and St. Louis to settle for a 25-yard Josh Brown field goal - and a 16-13 lead - with 12:25 left, setting the stage for the Patriots return to first place.
The return of O'Neal, who seemed to be done for the day after suffering a head injury on the first drive of the game, only to come back and rescue a depleted cornerbacks corps after Hobbs hurt his shoulder midway through the fourth quarter and Mike Richardson was banged up on a kickoff, is emblematic of the Patriots' performance this season.
Just when you count them out they come back and come up big.
"I guess you can say that," said safety James Sanders. "A lot of people have been counting us out with a lot of injuries and whatnot, but we know what we have in this locker room, and we're going to fight to the end.
"That's all we can do is put our head down and fight each and every week and try to pull out [wins] like we did today."