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WHEN PATRIOTS quarterback Matt Cassel walked off the field in San Francisco following a 30--21 victory over the 49ers on Sunday, New England owner Robert Kraft was waiting with an outstretched right arm. Rather than accept the congratulatory handshake, Cassel smiled broadly and wrapped Kraft in a firm hug.
Perhaps that scene best illuminates just how drastically times have changed for the Pats. They used to be about long winning streaks, Super Bowl victories and treating the regular season as a means to an end. Joyous hugs were reserved for victories on the last Sunday of the postseason, not the first Sunday in October.
Yet there was Cassel, giddy over beating a franchise that has not had a winning season since 2002. What's going on? "We had a loss last game," defensive end Richard Seymour said of New England's 38--13 defeat against Miami on Sept. 21, which was followed by a bye. "Anytime you lose and then you can come back and get a win in a hostile environment when you were down in the first half 14--7...."
He paused briefly and then added, "Anytime you get a win in this league, it's tough."
With his decision to keep the team in California all this week, coach Bill Belichick might be making it even tougher on the Patriots for Sunday night's game at San Diego. Several key starters who were asked about the decision said they supported it because they believe it will allow their bodies to be fresher than if they had made three cross-country trips within eight days, but the last team to stay on the road between games did not fare well.
Last month coach Ken Whisenhunt, seeking a remedy for Arizona's abysmal record on East Coast road trips—the Cardinals had lost 11 of 13 games against teams in eastern states since 2002—kept his team in northern Virginia between back-to-back games at Washington and New York (against the Jets). That didn't help. After the Cardinals lost to the Redskins 24--17, they were routed 56--35 by the Jets, falling behind 34--0 at the half and surrendering six touchdown passes to Brett Favre.
"It was apparent to me last year that we were a much more sluggish team when we played East Coast games," said Whisenhunt, who has yet to win on the East Coast in one-plus seasons as Arizona coach. "The decision to stay on the road was geared toward feeling better on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I believe our team felt better when we stepped on the field, even though it's hard to make the point because of the way the game went."
None of the Cardinals used the trip as an excuse for the team's play, but several said they were thrown off by the break in routine, including the nearly hourlong bus rides each way to practices, being unable to shower until they got back to their hotel and, in most cases, not having their families around.
"Good luck, Patriots," says playful Arizona defensive lineman Darnell Dockett. "I understand why we did it, but players are creatures of habit. That means lying in my bed at least five times a week, seeing my children every day. They get on your nerves, but it makes you want to hurry up and get to practice in the morning."