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On the receiving end

Posted by Tom Wilcox October 30, 2008 05:56 AM

Two years ago, it would have been unthinkable. The Patriots’ offensive weapons were so limited that the likes of Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel were lining up on the outside.

This season, with injuries affecting nearly every area of the roster, the deepest unit on the team is arguably the wide receivers.

And with record-setting wideouts like Wes Welker and Randy Moss, the Patriots have transformed from the team that lost to the Colts in the AFC championship game two seasons ago to a franchise with perhaps the best receiving corps in the NFL.

Being so deep at wide receiver — and limited to just three healthy running backs — the Patriots used a base three-receiver set on 42 of 62 offensive plays against the Rams. Jabar Gaffney joined Moss and Welker the majority of the time.

Having such an experienced and effective group has eased quarterback Matt Cassel’s difficult transition into the starting role.

“[Cassel] played really well today,” said Welker after Sunday’s game. “He made all the right reads and was seeing the defense really well. I think there were some plays that we need to be better on that he was good on and we weren’t. And we need to put those things together.”

Welker had seven catches for 79 yards against St. Louis and became the fourth player in NFL history to have at least six receptions in every game for the first seven games of the season. He is tied for third in the NFL with 49 catches.

Moss made the 800th catch of his illustrious career in the first quarter. He is the 20th player in league history to reach that number. He also had his 58th career 100-yard game, the third most in NFL history.

Moss and Welker had notable accomplishments on Sunday, but it wasn’t all rosy. Welker dropped a pass, then slipped and fell on another, which led to a Cassel interception. Moss missed a block on a screen to Welker, had a pass ricochet off his hands leading to a pick, and dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

“Those things are going to happen, where a guy falls down or a tipped ball happens,” said Cassel. “The main thing I thought was great for the offense was that we didn’t get discouraged. We knew the plays were there, we just didn’t make them. Then we came back and made the play when it counted at the end.”

Rock of ages
You could forgive Kevin Faulk for being a little more winded than usual after Sunday’s game. Faulk’s 13 carries and 60 yards were the most attempts and most yards he has had since a 13-carry, 87-yard performance against the Browns on Dec. 5, 2004.

“No matter what it takes to win games, you have to do,” said Faulk. “If you lose a man or two, you back them up.”

“He has been a very dependable and consistent player,” said coach Bill Belichick. “He is a clutch player and he is a good player. He is one of the best team players we have. He is all about our football team. Whatever he can do to help us win he’d do — mop the floors, he’d mop them.”

Job-sharing arrangement
Two weeks after being activated off the PUP list, right guard Stephen Neal continues to be eased back into the lineup. Billy Yates started Sunday, and they rotated in and out.

“I think Steve is probably getting pretty close now,” said Belichick. “He has been practicing for two weeks and he has played in two games about half of each game. Billy [Yates] has done a good job for us in there and I think Steve’s getting back so it is good to have another player at that position.”

Rude welcome
The Patriots are 29-5 against the NFC since 2001 (including 3-1 in Super Bowls). They also improved to 24-4 against teams making their first visit to Gillette Stadium. The only teams the Patriots have not played at Gillette, which opened in 2002, are Arizona, Atlanta, and Carolina. … The Patriots drew no accepted penalties against the Rams, marking the first penalty-free game in the franchise’s 731-game history.

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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