With fourth and goal at the one-yard line, Matt Cassel dropped back to pass. "It's a progression read," he would recall. "We went through it, and I didn't see anybody open."
And therein lies the difference between Cassel and the man he replaced, between this season and last. Tom Brady would've seen something. Certainly one assumes he'd have noticed Benjamin Watson, the New England tight end, open and waving his arms in the back of the end zone.
But Brady, of course, had knee surgery last week. In his stead, Cassell tried to run. "I was hoping to make a play with my legs," he said. "It didn't happen."
As it happened, San Diego's Ryon Bingham put him down for a loss. The Chargers began to celebrate. The crowd erupted. The score was 17-3. There was still 9:12 left in the third quarter. But the game was over. Everybody knew it, even the Patriots.
As Cassel came into the season having last started in high school—his senior season at Chatsworth High, back in the last millennium—you can't really fault him. Nor can you fault Bill Belichick for not kicking a field goal. At that point in the evening, it was even money that the Phillies would score more than the Patriots.
What's more, after seeing just how bad his team can be, it's a wonder how Belichick ever got them to 3-1. But now he's coming up against the limits of his vaunted game-planning skills. He can't make Matt Cassell a legit starting quarterback. He can't replace Brady.
Hate Brady and the Patriots all you want, but acknowledge what this season has become without a team most people loved to hate. Since beating the whiny Chargers last January—ending San Diego's hopes for the second consecutive year—the Patriots are merely a .500 team.
So much for that progression of which Cassel spoke. In fact, that play signified a regression—for the Patriots, sure, but also for the National Football League.
What happened Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium had been anticipated as a nationally televised grudge match between Super Bowl contenders. Problem was, it lacked grudge. It lacked drama. What was billed as a preview of the AFC championship wasn't fit for prime time.
Don't be fooled by the Chargers, either. I have seen them play twice at home this year. They've won by a combined score of 78-39. So what? They're 3-3, another .500 team. Figure they'll lose in Buffalo next week.
In a sense, this game was a microcosm of an underwhelming season. Consider the so-called elite teams. There aren't any. Or rather, there are two, both of them surprises of varying degree—the undefeated Giants, and more surprising, the undefeated Titans. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are 4-2. The Colts are 3-2. The Redskins, last week's darlings, just lost to the Rams. On any given Sunday, mediocrity reigns.
But back to New England, which lost 30-10, its second blowout loss of the season. Belichick was asked to assess the state of the Patriots: Was it a case of missing Brady, or was there more to it?
"San Diego played better than we did," he said. "They did a better job than we did in all three phases of the game. That's how I would assess it."
Brady's injury changed the balance of power, in the division and the AFC, for sure. But the Patriots seem diminished on defense, too, their aura of invincibility gone. They seem old and slow, especially in the secondary. Deltha O'Neal was burned twice, first by Malcolm Floyd and later by Vincent Jackson. Philip Rivers threw for three touchdowns— without getting sacked.
Cassel—22 of 38, 203 yards and an interception—was sacked four times.
It also bears mention that, on Belichick's command, he called a timeout with two seconds left. How do you assess that?
Brady's replacement said something about watching the game on film. Wonder what they'll see?
Not progression, that's for sure.
This article originally published on NFL?WRIPAR&promocode=101308BRRSWRILNKNNMK" target="_blank" title="Kriegel - NFL">FOXSports.com.
Read more of Mark's columns here.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!