EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings play in a division that has been up for grabs all season long. They've had four losses — and a tie — by four points or less.
So many factors led to the Vikings (4-9-1) being on the outside looking in as the season winds down. But one appears to stick out more than any other.
Matt Cassel has grabbed hold of the starting quarterback job over the last three weeks with the kind of consistent playmaking and unflappable leadership that the Vikings have yearned for all season long. After he threw for two touchdowns and 382 yards — the most by a Vikings quarterback since Brett Favre — to beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, receiver Greg Jennings couldn't help but ponder what might have been had Cassel taken over sooner.
"Yeah, you wonder but we have to move on," said Jennings, who had a career-high 11 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown. "I remember mentioning something like that to Matt and he's like, 'We have three games, let's make the best of them.' I love it because that's his mindset. He's not worried about what could've, should've, possibly or could've possibly been. He stays in the now."
Cassel has been the quarterback in three of the Vikings' four victories this season. Since taking over for the injured Christian Ponder late in the first half three weeks ago, he has thrown for 890 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions in two victories and a last-second loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
His most impressive performance yet came against the Eagles, who had won five in a row and had gone nine straight games without surrendering more than 21 points. The Vikings didn't have star running back Adrian Peterson or his backup Toby Gerhart because of injuries. Cassel completed his first nine throws to get the Vikings out quickly and made several big plays down the stretch.
"There are decisions that are made and you never know how they are going to work out," Cassel said. "At the same time, I'm just excited that I was able to go out there and perform today and I continue to look ahead."
The Vikings play the Bengals (9-5) in Cincinnati on Sunday.
Cassel signed in the offseason to be Christian Ponder's backup, knowing there was a good chance he would get a shot to play. After three straight losses to open the season, Ponder was held out against Pittsburgh with a rib injury.
Cassel led the Vikings to their first victory with a win over the Steelers in London. He played poorly against the Carolina Panthers in an ugly 35-10 home loss that came less than a week after the locker room was thrown into chaos when general manager Rick Spielman signed Josh Freeman.
Freeman started the following week against the New York Giants and delivered a woeful performance that prompted the Vikings to go back to Ponder, the former No. 12 overall pick, for one more look. Three losses, one tie and a victory over Washington followed, though a lackluster defense was equally to blame for the struggles.
All but eliminated from playoff contention after the poor start, coach Leslie Frazier indicated the team wanted to evaluate the younger quarterbacks in Ponder and Freeman rather than the veteran Cassel.
"Always felt good about Matt, but there were some things we needed to see," Frazier said. "Unfortunately we weren't able to get wins when we were going through the process. That would have been a lot better. Knew why we were doing it back then so hindsight is always 20/20."
Cassel has a player option on his contract for $3.7 million next season. If he keeps playing well, the 31-year-old likely could command a lot more in one last long-term deal if he opts out.
"I don't know what the future holds," Cassel said. "The one thing about this league and the NFL is that you never know what is going to happen and I really don't concentrate on that too much. Because I think as long as you go out there, you perform, you play well, then the rest will take care of itself."