by Scott Benson

The Patriots finished their 2006 pre-season with a thud tonight, as both their starters and reserves were bettered by the New York Giants in a 31-23 loss at the Meadowlands.

New York piled up nearly 400 yards of offense while limiting Matt Cassel and the Patriots to their lowest output of August. The Giants were by far the more physical and aggressive club tonight, regardless of who was on the field.

As far as New England’s starters, you can chalk most of this up to the evening’s playing-out-the-string vibe. But for the reserves, many of whom were fighting to stay on an NFL roster, it was a disappointing performance. Particularly within the hashmarks, on both sides of the ball.

Giant backs averaged more than 5 yards a carry (Brandon Jacobs was a terror), and porker QB Jared Lorenzen kept the Patriots retreating with quick, accurate passes.

Matt Cassel had his moments, but he wasn’t as impressive as the lumpy lefty. He managed to lead the Pats on four scoring drives, but only one (the first) was a touchdown. Even with the bulk of the playing time tonight (and for the entire pre-season), Cassel remains young, raw and inexperienced. But he’s hit enough sharp third down throws, and extended enough scoring drives with playmaking runs, to get a passing grade for his first camp as the backup quarterback.

Steven Gostkowski was probably the offensive star, with three field goals – including a mindroasting 54 yard laser – that brought him to a perfect 9-9 on the pre-season. At the moment, the rookie is striping it. And 34 year old Adam Vinatieri is nursing an injury. You never know.

With 116 yards on six catches, Bam Childress proved he belongs with the big club. Like Cassel, he’s young, and you can see where experience will bring a certain needed economy to their game. But the raw materials are there. In the case of Childress, they come in a small package. It remains to be seen how he’ll fare against the front-line players, but he’s done everything that has been asked of him so far.

Patrick Cobbs led the Patriots in rushing (12-45-TD) but fumbled early to set up a Giant field goal. Its hard to get a read on what will happen with the rookie free agent; he’s shown some promise (as both a runner and receiver) at what happens to one of the Patriots deepest positions. He’s another young kid that still has to develop, and he may be in the wrong place to do it. Versatile Heath Evans was solid again this week, seemingly leaving little room for Cobbs to move up.

The stat sheet says Johnathan Sullivan led the Pats in tackles, just above Monty Beisel, Jeremy Mincey and Antwan Spann. I can’t think of a single goddam thing any of them did. It’s like Coach Lombardi used to say. “GRAB, GRAB, GRAB! NOBODY’S TACKLING OUT THERE!” They sure weren’t. To be fair, its hard to tackle when you’re laying on your back.

Once again, terrible luck for Barry Gardner, a guy that worked hard to make the team. As noted before, with Mel Mitchell lost for the season and Tebucky Jones hurting, that’s three veteran special teamers (acquired for just that purpose) on the shelf. Will we eventually see an impact on the coverage teams?

That’s for another day, I guess. It should be an interesting weekend, with the cuts – and an unhappy Deion Branch – looming. I’ll look forward to talking with you again next Friday, as the roundtable gets ready for opening weekend and the Buffalo Bills.