logoby Dan Snapp

You never know what memories of a football game you’ll stash away long after the contest’s completed. The big plays typically get top billing – the bomb, the interception, the game-ending sack – but often, it’s less-likelier suspects that resonate. It’s a subtle part of the game’s beauty.

Early in the fourth quarter Sunday, after the Rams went up 16-13 on the Patriots, an old familiar feeling washed over: the Patriots are going to win this.

There was no particular rhyme or reason for it at the time. The Patriots had just consummated an abysmal third quarter by giving up an onside kick, two interceptions, the ball on downs, and ultimately the lead. Moreover, their first possession of the fourth featured two dropped passes, a sack and punt.

Didn’t matter. The feeling persisted.

And it was familiar not from last year, when a different kind of “They’re going to win this” feeling would hit, usually in the first quarter. No, this was a feeling returning from 2003 and 2004.

Despite their matching 14-2 records those two years, the Patriots were often undersold as a league power, as they rarely blew anybody out. A common win would be them holding an 8- to 11-point lead early in the fourth, and then watching the opposition use up most of remaining regulation getting one of the two scores they needed.

To beat the Patriots back then, you had to knock them out early. If they were lingering, they were going to win. That old feeling said as much.

The feeling is hooey, of course. That you’d feel it was real, but it was nothing more than confidence stemming from the team’s hard work, rather than anything otherworldly. It’s the old adage, “Repetition is the mother of skill,” which then becomes the mother of our superstitions.

The first seeds of it were planted in 2000. The Pats lost 11 games that year, but with a couple exceptions, they were in each game. You could sense the handful of plays where each game could have turned differently, but more importantly, you could see that the Patriots players were usually in position to make those plays but simply didn’t. Better players and another year in the system would turn them in the Pats’ favor.

The same thing was evident Sunday against the Rams. Matt Cassel may have won the offensive player of the week honors the previous week, but Sunday was his watershed moment. In contrast to his first six games, he was suddenly leading his receivers, moving up in the pocket better, and not waiting for the receivers to get open before throwing the ball. And on a day when the Rams were forcing the Pats to win it on Cassel’s arm, he stepped up.

The two interceptions Cassel threw were the kinds of throws you want to see. The first was on an attempt to Randy Moss in single coverage, something a QB should always try for, and the second might have caught Wes Welker in stride if he hadn’t slipped on the turf.

The two fades Cassel threw to the end zone – a Moss drop and a Kevin Faulk TD – displayed a touch heretofore not shown by the young quarterback. Combine that with a resurgent pass rush, a recovering offensive line, hopefully the speedy return to health of Sammy Morris, and a league with no real superpower, and the Pats could make some waves.

You could get a good feeling about this team.