The outlook for Sunday's game took a dramatic turn last weekend when Tom Bradysuffered a season-ending knee injury against the Chiefs, leaving the outcome for Week 2 – along with the rest of the schedule – in doubt as the New England Patriots prepare to move forward without their franchise quarterback.
]()Welcome to the Matt CasselEra, as the career backup makes his first NFL start Sunday afternoon against the New York Jets in front of what should be a rabid crowd at the Meadowlands with Brett Favre making his regular-season Big Apple debut.
Outside of the epic trade with Green Bay that brought Favre to Broadway, the Jets took others steps to improve upon their 4-12 finish from last year. New York bolstered its porous run defense by acquiring nose tackle Kris Jenkins in a trade with Carolina, signing former Arizona linebacker Calvin Pace to a six-year, $42-million contract and drafting linebacker Vernon Gholston with the sixth overall pick. The Jets also revamped their offensive line with the signing of Damien Woody and Alan Faneca and added two more weapons in the passing game with the acquisition of fullback Tony Richardson and tight end Bubba Franks.
This game might've been difficult even with Brady in the lineup. Now it becomes even harder considering Cassel's inexperience and the extra incentive for the Jets, who are feeling more confident about their chances in the AFC East with Brady out for the season.
"I'm just going to go out there and do what I have done in the past – prepare as hard as I can and put myself in a good position to be successful and have fun," Cassel said. "We will see come Sunday."
The Jets, who beat Miami in Week 1 behind two touchdown passes from Favre, view Sunday's showdown as a chance to get a leg up in the division race against the Patriots, who are also coming off a victory in their season opener.
"One of the things we consistently talk about, and what I talked about in my first, second and now my third year, is that it is not about external factors and external expectations," Jets head coach Eric Mangini said. "What matters are what we do collectively. I have seen that over and over again throughout my time in the NFL where expectations have no correlation with results. What has a correlation with results are focus, work and preparation."
As for the Patriots, their goal remains the same regardless of who plays quarterback – win at all costs and keep the focus on the field. Their much-heralded ability to avoid distractions and maintain their edge will be put to the test as the season progresses.
"This is our first division game, so we're excited about the challenge to go down to New York," Patriots head coach Bill Belichicksaid. "We have a lot of respect for the Jets. The Jets have made quite a few changes in the off-season and it looks like a lot of the things they're trying to do, they accomplished in their first game. It's going to be tough for us to make sure we try to meet all of those challenges on Sunday."
Here are five keys to the game:
1. Give the kid a chance
The obvious focus will be on Cassel, who will make his first start since high school and his first start as the quarterback of the New England Patriots – no small feat considering he's replacing the reigning league MVP and a future Hall of Famer.
The Jets will try to throw a number of different looks at Cassel defensively. How he handles the pressure will determine whether or not the Patriots can move the ball and stay competitive.
According to Belichick, the Jets rushed five defenders on roughly half of their defensive snaps against the Dolphins – and that was with former New York quarterback Chad Pennington lining up behind center for Miami. Expect that number to increase against Cassel. Mangini is a Belichick disciple and has no doubt inherited the same qualities from his former mentor in terms of drawing up defensive schemes to confuse young quarterbacks.
Also, it'll be interesting to see how much free reign Cassel has with the offense. Will the Patriots play it safe and try to establish the run? Will they let Cassel take chances down the field? Cassel certainly has the arm strength, but his accuracy and decision-making are still under question considering he's had limited playing time in the NFL.
Like with most quarterbacks, how Cassel performs Sunday will ultimately determine whether the Patriots win or lose.
2. Avoid the trap
Favre is known throughout the NFL as a free-lancing gunslinger who's not afraid to take chances or make adjustments on the fly.
"You can never relax," Belichick said. "You never want to relax anywhere, but Brett is the type of player that can take the ball from one side of the field and, in a split second, turn around, whip it somewhere else and put it right on the money."
The former Green Bay Packer will no doubt be fired up playing his first regular-season game in front of the home crowd at the Meadowlands, though his enthusiasm sometimes leads to carelessness.
The Patriots have to be cautious of his tendency to find the open receiver on a whim or tuck the ball and run when the defense isn't watching. Favre will force the ball into coverage at times and it's up to the secondary to make him pay for his bravery, because he's pretty hard to stop once he gets on a roll.
3. Break the unbreakable
]()Jenkins is a massive presence on the Jets' defensive line and his performance will dictate whether or not New York can slow down the Patriots' versatile rushing attack.
As the nose tackle on Mangini's 3-4 defense – a scheme similar to what the Patriots have used for the past five years – Jenkins is the engine that keeps the machine running.
Offensive linemen Dan Koppenand Billy Yateswill have their hands full trying to block Jenkins and open up holes for Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morrisand whoever else gets carries Sunday. Yates' inexperience may be an issue, but the good news is the Patriots have five active running backs who all bring something different to the table, including Kevin Faulk, who is back following a one-game suspension.
The Patriots can also spread out New York's defense by running screen plays if Jenkins is too much to handle up the middle. LaMont Jordanand Faulk are particularly adept at catching passes out of the backfield, which would limit Jenkins' ability to impact the game. No matter what they do, the Patriots can't let Jenkins overpower their offensive line, otherwise Cassel will have even more to worry about in his first NFL start.
4. Sweat the small stuff
The Patriots still need to sort out some of their roles on special teams, particularly in the return game. Rookie Matthew Slatermuffed his first attempt at a kickoff return last weekend while cornerback Ellis Hobbsresumed his role from 2007 and sparked the offense with a 51-yard return in the second half.
Surprisingly, Wes Welkerdid not return punts against the Chiefs. Instead, newcomer Deltha O'Nealshouldered the load despite not joining the team until six days before the opener.
Are these roles permanent? The Patriots auditioned a number of players on kickoff returns during training camp in an effort to alleviate Hobbs of the extra workload following an injury-plagued season in 2007. Slater earned Belichick's trust, but did not get a second attempt following his gaffe last weekend. O'Neal was fine, though he nearly paid the price after making an ill-advised catch on a punt at his own 15-yard line in the second quarter. This could be a work in progress as the season progresses.
Likewise, the Patriots need more from punter Chris Hanson, who kicked the ball into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter of last week's game in an attempt to pin the Chiefs deep in their own territory. The defense bailed him out twice.
5. Lead the pack
This has been a tough week for the Patriots in the aftermath of Brady's injury, so it's up to the captains to fill the void and provide leadership when it's needed the most.
]()The usual suspects such as Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschiand Mike Vrabelwill continue to offer insight and support throughout the season, but it'll be interesting to watch Randy Moss, who is in his first year as a captain and has now lost his quarterback to a season-ending injury.
The best thing for Cassel would be to receive Moss' unwavering support, which, by all accounts, he has so far. As Moss said during the week, "The show must go on," but the true test of his leadership will come under adverse conditions; for example, if the Patriots are down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter Sunday, Moss needs to be one of the players who remains upbeat and keeps Cassel's spirits high.
The intangibles only go so far, but Brady has always been regarded as a vocal leader and one who leads by example, so someone has to fill that void. While one player might not be able to do the job, every little bit helps – especially with a young, inexperienced quarterback at the helm for the foreseeable future.