FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -Matt Cassel gave words of encouragement to one of the Heisman Trophy winners who kept him on the bench at Southern California.
His advice to pro backup Matt Leinart: ``I just tell him he's got to keep his head up, and I'm sure he is.''
The Patriots quarterback also stays in touch with the other USC Heisman winner he watched from the sidelines for two years, Carson Palmer, who missed his sixth straight game with a right elbow injury when Cincinnati played Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
``I've talked to him,'' Cassel said Thursday. ``Those guys have earned their way. They were great college players and they're great professional players, and I've got a lot of respect for them and I'm just happy that I have an opportunity to play now and we're able to talk about those kind of things.''
The role reversals are stunning.
Cassel completed 20 of 33 passes for 192 yards with no starts in four years at USC. Then he went three years without starting for New England.
went 30-for-51 for 400 yards in a 34-31 overtime loss to the New York Jets. He also rushed for 62 yards - 40 more than he picked up in all four college seasons.
``Matt has plenty of talent and he was very competitive with Leinart and Palmer at USC, even though he ended up backing up both of those players,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ``He continues to get better every time he's on the field.''
Cassel got his big chance when Tom Brady sustained a season-ending knee injury in the opener. He should have another big chance, as a free agent, when his contract expires after this season in a league where he's outplayed numerous quarterbacks.
But he remembers the bleaker days.
New England was winning 42-14 in Miami last October when Cassel replaced Brady with 11 minutes left and was intercepted on his second pass by Jason Taylor, who returned it for a touchdown.
Belichick sent Brady back in on the Patriots next series and they won 49-28. Cassel fared better seven days later, when they pounded Washington 52-7.
``You never want to go into a game in that situation when you're winning by a bunch and throw an interception,'' Cassel said Thursday. ``Your confidence is shook a little bit. But, look, there's the next day and luckily for me I was able to come back out the next week against Washington and have a good week, and score a touchdown, put together a scoring drive.
go through adversities on the field, off the field, and you've just got to continue to push through.''
On Sunday, he'll make his first start in Miami. The teams are 6-4, one game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East. The Patriots already lost to the Dolphins, 38-13, so another setback would be a huge disadvantage in the tiebreaker playoff procedure should the teams finish with the same record.
``Every week's a must win for us, from week one to right now,'' Cassel said, ``especially this time of year.''
He may be the key to the Patriots offense, but there were times when he thought he never would get a real chance to show what he could accomplish.
After all, Brady had started every game since Cassel arrived as a seventh-round draft pick in 2005.
``Tom would take a few shots here and there, but he'd always gets up and he's a very durable guy,'' Cassel said. ``There were times that I didn't know whether or not I was ever going to get on the field, but I just tried to keep preparing myself like I was.''
Now he's there, while Leinart is backing up Kurt Warner at Arizona and Palmer is sidelined at Cincinnati.
And at USC, there's another quarterback waiting his turn. Mitch Mustain transferred from Arkansas and is watching starter Mark Sanchez from the sidelines.
He draws hope from Cassel's climb.
he finally got his break,'' Mustain said in a Los Angeles Times article.
Cassel, who waited for his break, now can give hope to others.
``For any backup anywhere, I guess my story is one that gives inspiration and gives promise to some of those guys that are fighting for a position,'' he said. ``Continue to work hard and continue to put your best foot forward each and every day and, quite possibly, your dreams will come true.''

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