logoby Chris Warner

In order for the Patriots to succeed, Matt Cassel has to excel. Well, not excel, exactly. He just has to do whatever the opposite of “mess up” is. Perform. Function. Execute. Achieve. (Okay, fine: I used a thesaurus.)

In New England’s 23-17 win over the Rams, Cassel performed quite well, hitting 21 of 33 passes for 267 yards and one game-winning touchdown. He also overcame a shaky third quarter to get his team 10 points in the fourth.

The kid stayed focused, even as his receivers let him down: both Wes Welker and Randy Moss dropped passes they tend to catch. Moss let six points through his hands on a pretty touch throw (or what would have been pretty). New England had to settle for a field goal and a 16-16 tie with 8:22 left in the game.

Cassel got the ball back about 90 seconds later and, after a St. Louis sack, completed a 23-yarder over the middle to Moss. Kevin Faulk picked up two first downs: one on a draw, the other up the middle after a Moss eight-yard quick slant. From the 15-yard line, Faulk juked toward the middle and bent his route outside, pulling in Cassel’s lofted ball past Rams linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (what?) for the 23-16 lead with just over three minutes remaining.

If a quarterback is measured by how well he performs at the end of halves, Cassel gets bonus points for his work in the second quarter. New England took the lead on some sound clock management, special teams, and a big play to Moss (who knew?). With 29 seconds left in the half, the Rams had to punt twice due to an ineligible receiver penalty, giving the home team the ball at St. Louis’ 46. Cassel found Moss crossing for a 30-yard pickup, but couldn’t connect with him in the end zone. Still, with one second left, Stephen Gostkowski got the home squad the lead, 13-10.

The halftime score came as a surprise to viewers because St. Louis had managed to squander some serious opportunities midway through the second. The Patriots pass defense looked porous, with pores the size of donut holes. Consider this: by the time rookie Donnie Avery scored the Rams’ first TD on a 69-yarder for a 10-7 St. Louis lead with 14:14 left in the half, he had already tallied four catches for 113 yards. (Avery ended up with six receptions for 163 yards. Uh, Pats DBs? Peyton Manning likes to throw long. Just thought I’d put that out there for next week.)

The Rams seemed in position to add to their lead midway through the second quarter, but all of a sudden Bulger seemed hesitant. Possibly Adalius Thomas’ 13-yard sack and Richard Seymour’s sack two plays later added to his second-guessing. Cassel used his arm (a 9-yarder to Welker) and his feet (11-yard scramble) to gain key first downs. Faulk nabbed a flat pass and rambled for 12 to the Ram 14. The QB got them no closer (and avoided a should-have-been interception by the grace of any football gods), so Stephen Gostkowski came on to tie the score at 10.

In the third, after the defense held the Rams to a three-and-out to open the second half (following an onsides kick that had each team’s fans jumping off their couches and screaming for opposite reasons), New England turned the ball over on a Cassel interception where the pass was knocked away from Moss. St. Louis took the short field and converted a kick to knot it at 13.

With five minutes left in the third, the Patriots tried to regain some offensive momentum. Runs by Faulk and a pass to Welker got the home team into Rams territory. When New England failed to gain five yards in four plays and turned the ball over on downs (hey, right guard Billy Yates: just … arrgh), St. Louis had them singing the blues (sorry, had to) on a bomb to Downfield Avery. The Patriots defense found itself back in the red zone once again, but once again they prevented the touchdown to keep themselves within 16-13 early in the fourth.

With his team needing momentum like a lazy kid on a swing, Ellis Hobbs took the kickoff up the middle and cut to the left for a big return, getting the Patriots to the 50. New England did nothing with it, but don’t blame Cassel: both Welker and Faulk dropped sure receptions. To Cassel’s credit, he shook those off and got his team the tying and winning points on their next two possessions.

The Patriots got a break at the start of the game when a long kickoff return was called back due to holding (two breaks if you include the fact that nasty running back Stephen Jackson was a scratch). St. Louis decided to stick to the ground game. It suited them well, as they gained a first down on fourth and short from their own 40 to keep their opening drive alive.  A 35-yard pass by Marc Bulger to Avery up the seam got the Rams to New England’s nine, but the Patriots’ defense held them to a field goal.

Cassel started strong (four of five, 48 yards), spreading the ball around to Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Moss. BenJarvus Green-Ellis did the honors at the 1:50 mark, breaking through for a two-yard touchdown and a 7-3 first-quarter lead.

On the down side, Cassel had two interceptions, though both seemed beyond his control (Moss seemed to miss the tipped ball; Welker simply fell down). He took three sacks, but didn’t hold the ball as long as he had last week. (Matt Light got a holding call on Chris Long, yet Long ran in for the sack anyway. If Light’s going to hold, shouldn’t he do it better?)

Let’s get to the main point, something we all know but tend to forget: the 2008 season has to be about more than Cassel.

During every championship season in Foxboro, the Patriots have gotten help from unexpected sources.  In 2001, WR/ST Fred Coleman, TE Jermaine Wiggins and LB Mike Vrabel (an unheralded free agent from Pittsburgh, lest we forget) all made timely contributions. In 2003, Matt Chatham subbed for the injured Vrabel, while linemen Tom Ashworth and Russ Hochstein did fine work on offense. In 2004, linebacker Don Davis spent time at safety, while undrafted CB Randall Gay helped out in the backfield. Brandon Gorin ended up supplementing the offensive line in the Super Bowl win vs. the Eagles.

For the Patriots to win this year, they’ll need more of the same strong defensive efforts from their starters. They’ll need pressure from the likes of Seymour (seven tackles, one sack), Thomas (seven tackles, two sacks) and Ty Warren (four tackles, one sack); offensive production from Moss (seven catches, 102 yards) and Welker (seven catches, 79 yards); and big plays from guys on offense (Faulk, 107 yards total, one TD), defense (Deltha O’Neal, late interception) and special teams (Gostkowski, three-for-three on field goals; Hobbs, 49-yard kick return). But if we already count on the aforementioned players to make plays, we must ask ourselves: Where is the unexpected help going to come from this season?

Here’s a short list of athletes who could end up making a surprise impact by year’s end.

Mark LeVoir, right tackle: Some might be saying, “Mark LeVoir? Why, I haven’t heard his name called in weeks!” Exactly. Like the guard for the Rams, offensive linemen want to remain Incognito. (Whether or not they’d like to be Richie Incognito specifically, I don’t know.)

Jonathan Wilhite, cornerback: the rookie had seven total tackles on the day and showed pretty good pass coverage (overall, I’m saying. Yeesh), especially once the Patriots went to a two-deep zone to prevent the long stuff. The coaches seem to trust him. With experience, he should improve and get more opportunities.

Gary Guyton, linebacker: with his increased playing time, Guyton has demonstrated an understanding of New England’s nickel defenses. After last week’s one-handed fumble recovery, he seems due for a pick. With his speed, I’d like to see him take one back.

Sam Aiken, receiver/special teamer: If you’re Wes Welker, and you’re catching a bubble screen, would you rather have Aiken blocking for you, or Moss? If you watched this game, you know what I’m talking about. Aiken’s block provided Welker with space to head upfield, while Moss’ effort allowed him to see the “Riddell” brand name on the onrushing defender’s helmet right before impact. Also, Aiken has become an in-motion blocker, opening outside lanes for running backs. Speaking of whom…

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, running back: today was Faulk’s day (13 rushes, 60 yards), but Green-Ellis has shown that he can get tough gainers up the middle, as evidenced by his two-yard power rush for the game’s first TD. Even after Sammy Morris and/or LaMont Jordan return, Green-Ellis should get a few carries per game.

Cassel is growing into the QB role. The players around him have adapted to his cadence and rhythm and have started to gel. On defense, the stars have started to come out. With a few surprise contributors, the Patriots might go farther than expected.