QB had to throw caution at the wind

Cassel manages an air-tight game

On a day when the wind rendered the passing game nearly obsolete, Matt Cassel did a bit of everything, including booting a 57-yard punt in the third quarter. On a day when the wind rendered the passing game nearly obsolete, Matt Cassel did a bit of everything, including booting a 57-yard punt in the third quarter. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Rich Garven
Worcester Telegram &Amp; Gazette / December 29, 2008
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - It was too windy to fly a kite.

On a day in which the wind blew at a steady 40 miles per hour - and hit 50 at times - quarterback Matt Cassel knew the Patriots were going to take a plodding offensive approach yesterday against the Buffalo Bills. That meant more handing off than dropping back.

So the Patriots ran 47 times and threw eight passes while grinding out a 13-0 victory to finish the season at 11-5. Even though they missed out on a playoff berth, it was a satisfying end to a season that started with such uncertainty.

"I didn't know how this year was going to go when it all started," Cassel said. "I stepped into this role and I had some big shoes to fill, but to come out here and put ourselves in a position to possibly be in the playoffs and to win 11 games was a big accomplishment for not only myself, but this team and this organization. It showed the resiliency and the great coaching that goes into every week."

Cassel wasn't asked to make many plays yesterday, but he made the most of them in what might have been the free-agent-to-be's last game as a Patriot.

Playing with a glove on his left hand, Cassel was 6 of 8 for 78 yards in the chilly conditions. It was the second-fewest pass attempts in franchise history, behind the five thrown in the famed "Snow Plow" game against the Dolphins in 1982.

Cassel also rushed three times for 19 yards and chipped in with a 57-yard punt late in the game.

Those aren't big numbers, but Cassel made big plays at key moments. He accounted for eight of the Patriots' 16 first downs.

"I thought he made a lot of great decisions today," coach Bill Belichick said. "To throw it, to run it. He put the ball, at times, in only places it could be caught."

The Patriots were with the wind in the first quarter and took a 3-0 lead on their second possession. The two biggest plays were receptions by fullback Heath Evans, who slipped into the right flat for gains of 19 and 12 yards.

"The two balls I caught, they were as good a throws as you could have in that type of weather," said Evans, who had one reception in the first 15 games.

Cassel scrambled for 6 and 7 yards on consecutive plays - the latter on fourth and 5 when he absorbed a hit from cornerback Reggie Corner and spun forward for the first down - on a drive that came up empty in the second quarter.

His other run came on the Patriots' second possession of the second half with the offense facing fourth and 2 from the Buffalo 25.

Occasional tight end Mike Vrabel ran a route to the right, clearing space that Cassel wasted no time filling.

"No one was taking me into account," he said of his 6-yard dash.

After three LaMont Jordan rushes, Cassel connected with Wes Welker for 12 yards on fourth and 5. Jordan scored standing up from the 2 on the next play to push the lead to 10-0 with 4:39 left in the third.

On the Patriots' next possession, Cassel found Kevin Faulk (8 yards), Randy Moss (13), and Welker (14) during a 15-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Stephen Gostkowski's second field goal, this one from 23 yards. Cassel's first completion of the drive was into the wind; the last two with it.

"You just have to anticipate and the routes that you call you just try to put it all on the receiver so they can catch the ball with their body if they need to," Cassel said. "The ball moves a little bit, and you just try to be as accurate as possible."

Cassel's final contribution was a punt on third down out of the shotgun - with the wind at his back - that sailed and rolled 57 yards before being downed at the Buffalo 2 with 5:01 to play.

Many knew Cassel hadn't started a game at quarterback since high school before this season. Hardly anyone knew he was a punter in high school.

"Earlier in the game, Buffalo rushed 10 guys, so protection was going to be an issue," Belichick said. "The quick kick saves us there."

The same could be said for Cassel with regard to the Patriots' season.

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