FOXBOROUGH - The wondering what-ifs proved a lot easier to hang onto than the football for Jabar Gaffney.
One of the most reliable receivers on the Patriots, Gaffney was crestfallen about his crucial drop in the 18-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. With the Patriots trailing the Colts, 15-12, Matt Cassel hit a wide-open Gaffney for a would-be 39-yard touchdown on the penultimate play of the third period, but Gaffney let the ball - and the lead - slip through his hands.
Even though the Patriots went on to tie the game with a field goal on that drive, Gaffney thought about the drop on the plane ride home Sunday night, some more on Monday, and during his offday Tuesday.
"It started off as a rough week, wondering if I would have caught it how the game would have turned out," said Gaffney, who thanked his teammates and coaches for their support. "But I mean it's a new week, on to Buffalo.
"I've put it behind me, and had a good week of practice. I've made that same catch numerous times this week and made sure I got some extra work on the long ball over the shoulder, so hopefully, that never happens again."
Gaffney's gaffe was magnified because he hasn't had many opportunities to make plays this season. Perhaps no receiver has been more adversely affected by the absence of Tom Brady than Gaffney, who, after joining the team in 2006, immediately clicked with the quarterback.
All of the team's passing numbers, which were at record-setting levels last year, have predictably dipped - and likely would have even with Brady - but the production out of the No. 3 receiver spot behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker has plummeted.
Welker, who has 56 catches, is on pace to match his franchise record of 112 from last season, and Moss, who has been frequently double-teamed, won't equal his NFL record of 23 TD receptions, but is still averaging 14.1 yards per reception, 1.1 fewer than last season.
Entering today's game against the Buffalo Bills, Gaffney has 12 catches for 118 yards and one touchdown. Last season, while sharing the No. 3 role with Donté Stallworth (now with Cleveland), he had 36 catches for 449 yards and a career-high five touchdowns.
Granted, Gaffney had only 12 catches for 98 yards and a score at this point last season.
Gaffney hasn't caught more than one pass in any of the last four games. Three times this year he has caught no passes in a game. That happened three times all last season.
"Matt has been coming along strong these past couple of weeks, especially," said Gaffney. "He's playing great ball right now, so when they come to me . . .
"I've been used to going a game without a catch and then come back with a game with only one catch. That part of it I'm still cool with. I'm just used to making every play that comes my way. I let one slip, and I take it hard. That's part of me.
"I hate dropping passes, and I dropped one that could have helped us out in a big way."
Coach Bill Belichick pointed out that one possible reason for the drop in production from Gaffney is that the Patriots are passing less and running more this season.
Last year, 57.3 percent of the Patriots' 1,058 plays were passing plays. This season, 53 percent of 525 plays have been passing plays.
The Patriots rushed for 1,572 yards in 2007, averaging 4.1 yards per carry; this season they've already rushed for 1,053 yards and are averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
Running the ball also means that Gaffney, or any third receiver, is on the field less frequently. Last year, the Patriots ran 68 percent of their plays with three or four wide receivers. This year, they've played with three wide receivers 51.6 percent of the time.
"Their formations have changed. What happens then? They've changed their style of attack," said former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, now an analyst with CBS.
"When Brady was in there, he had a tremendous ability to read defenses. It's not fair to compare [Cassel] based on experience, but Brady, with his vision, could spread the field, left to right, deep to short, short to deep. That immediately put all the receivers in the game.
"Matt Cassel can't do that and the Patriots aren't asking him to do that very often or at all. That has cut down on the production. When you throw, who are you going to throw to? Your two best receivers."
That could change today against the Bills and in the second half of the season, as Cassel clearly has looked more comfortable in his last three games. Cassel's evolution could open the field and the playbook for Gaffney to get more chances like the one against the Colts.
"With the talent we have, everybody wants to get catches and go out there and make plays for the team," said Gaffney. "Wes and Randy have been getting the majority of the passes and everybody else is capable of making plays here, too.
"The coaches know that. Matt knows that, and whenever he throws somewhere else besides Wes or Randy, if teams start taking those two away, that somebody else has to make a play."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com