FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -Matt Cassel is aware of his critics.
They say the New England Patriots are finished if Tom Brady misses games and he has to take over for a long period. They look at his preseason statistics and reach the same conclusion.
Fans pile on him on talk radio. TV commentators take their shots.
On Tuesday, Cassel stood tall at his locker. Brady, nursing a foot injury and yet to play in an exhibition game, was nowhere in sight. The backup who has thrown just 72 passes in three NFL seasons and four college seasons, said the criticism motivates him.
``It always fires you up,'' he said. ``You go out there and you want to prove people wrong and get better.''
He has quite a way to go, although he may be farther along than the Cassel-bashers think.
``We have confidence in Cass,'' wide receiver Jabar Gaffney said Tuesday. ``He's a smart quarterback and we believe if he's out there that he can make the right reads and do what Tom does out there.''
Matching the reigning NFL MVP is asking too much, but Cassel has played better than his statistics in the first two exhibition games suggest. In nine possessions, he completed 7 of 14 passes for 68 yards and one interception.
But he hasn't been playing with all the regular starters and the game plan isn't specifically designed to protect him from the strength of the defense.
In a 16-15 loss to Baltimore in the exhibition opener, the Patriots weren't fully prepared for the blitzing the Ravens did. Cassel also had to adjust to some unexpected moves from the Tampa Bay defense in the Patriots' 27-10 loss Sunday night.
``You never know what they're going to do,'' Cassel said. ``You've got to react and that's part of playing the position and it's part of being a good offense.''
Cassel was replaced after the first series of the third quarter by rookie Kevin O'Connell. The Patriots' other quarterback, second-year pro Matt Gutierrez, sat out with a shoulder injury. Coach Bill Belichick hasn't named a primary backup.
Brady said he's not sure if he'll play in the third exhibition game against Philadelphia on Friday night. He also could miss the final one Aug. 28 at the New York Giants but is aiming to be ready for the regular season opener Sept. 7 against Kansas City.
Last season, Randy Moss didn't play in any exhibition games then caught nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in the season opener.
Brady has participated in many preseason practices but wasn't seen during the brief period Tuesday's session was open to the media.
Belichick didn't seem particularly concerned.
``I would say everything he would probably be doing, he's done before. It is just a question of fine tuning it, working on timing and all those kinds of things,'' Belichick said. ``Some of the practices that he hasn't participated in are still things that he has done before, not new things.
``But to the extent if there are new things and the player misses those then we will need to catch him up on it because the rest of the team has got it.''
The Patriots drafted Cassel in the seventh round in 2005 from Southern California, where he backed up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
With Brady's action limited, Cassel is getting extra time in practice and games.
``Any time you can get into game situations and get out there and be in game speed it's great for the development process,'' Cassel said. ``The more you do it, obviously the more comfortable you become.''
He felt he threw the ball well at times at Tampa Bay and didn't think statistics told the whole story. He was 6-for-10 for 57 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Brady didn't make the trip but was on the sidelines in the first game.
``We always have discussions after the game,'' Cassel said. ``He's always very supportive and points out things that he thinks that I could get better on and also points out the things that I did really well.''
He said he and the rest of the offense take personally the fact that they haven't scored a touchdown in the exhibition games.
``It doesn't matter to me what people say on the outside. All that matters is what's going on internally and how I'm doing,'' Cassel said. ``I feel like I'm making a lot of progress and I feel like I know the offense and I feel like I can go out and execute the offense.''

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