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Matt Cassel will start at QB for the Vikings on Sunday, and the official reason being given is that Christian Ponder has not passed his concussion test after being knocked from the game against the Bears at halftime.
The honest truth is that Cassel is a better quarterback than Ponder and certainly gives the Vikings a better chance to win.
With that in mind, we thought it might be fun to look back at the season and imagine how it might have played out differently if Cassel had been the starter all season. Keep in mind, of course, this is all purely speculative and hypothetical:
Week 1: 34-24 loss at Detroit. Ponder started and threw three interceptions, including a game-turner with the Vikings leading 14-6 late in the first half and driving for more points. Detroit got the ball and scored to make it 14-13 at the break and went on for the victory. Win probability if Cassel starts: Tossup.
Week 2: 31-30 loss at Chicago: The Vikings were tied 14-14 in the second quarter because of a kickoff return and fumble return for TDs. Then Ponder threw a pick-six and it was 21-14 Bears. Ponder responded and played decently the rest of the way, but he and the offense couldn't cash in a late drive for a TD. They settled for a field goal, the Bears scored in the final minute and there you have it. Win probability if Cassel starts: 60 percent.
Week 3: 31-27 loss to Cleveland: Ponder had just 228 yards passing and an interception on 42 attempts, but he did have a pair of rushing touchdowns that had the Vikings in position to win, leading 27-24 late. The defense couldn't hold, and another late close loss was at hand. Win probability if Cassel starts: 60 percent.
Week 4: Cassel started in London against the Steelers. The Vikings won.
Week 6, after bye: Cassel started vs. Carolina. The Vikings lost. Carolina has won 8 consecutive games starting with that one.
Week 7: 23-7 loss at New York. Josh Freeman started and was awful. The Vikings actually led 7-3 in the first quarter thanks to a Marcus Sherels punt return for a TD. That was their only score of the game against the Giants, who were almost as inept. Win probability if Cassel starts: Tossup.
Week 8: 44-31 loss to Packers. Ponder plays OK, but the Packers shred the Vikings' defense. Win probability if Cassel starts: Low.
Week 9: 27-23 loss to Dallas. Playing one of the worst pass defenses in the league, Ponder is decent. His fumble in the end zone is recovered by the Cowboys for a 20-10 lead, but he helps lead two TD drives to reclaim the lead at 23-20. But a critical three-and-out with a chance to ice the game haunts Ponder and the Vikings, as Dallas rallies late to win. Win probability if Cassel starts: 60 percent.
Week 10: 34-27 Vikings win. Ponder plays quite well but is knocked out of the game setting up the go-ahead TD at 28-27. Cassel relieves and leads two field goal drives, and the defense holds on for the win. Win probability if Cassel starts: Tossup.
Week 11: 41-20 Seattle. Vikings are clobbered. Ponder has an awful second half, but this game was not determined by the QB. Win probability if Cassel starts: Low.
Week 12: 26-26 tie vs. Green Bay. Ponder plays decently in helping the Vikings build a 23-7 lead, but the offense stalls in the fourth quarter as the Packers rally to tie. In overtime, the Packers kick a field goal but the Vikings come back and get one, too -- largely thanks to their ground game -- and the game winds up tied. Win probability if Cassel starts: 60 percent.
Week 13: 23-20 win over the Bears: Ponder is knocked out at halftime with a concussion after going just 3 of 8 for 40 yards. Cassel relieves, leads a late rally to force overtime, then the Vikings kick the game-winning field goal in OT. Cassel finishes with 243 yards, one TD and an INT -- on a ball that should have been caught for a touchdown. Win probability if Cassel starts: 80 percent.
So what we have is this: Five games the Vikings lost and one tie in which the difference between Ponder or Freeman and Cassel, in our mind, might have made the difference in a victory. One game in which Ponder started (and won) that we're not sure Cassel would have won.
Our best guess is the Vikings very well could be .500 if Cassel had started all season. In this year's NFC North, that would mean they were in the thick of the race.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments
Chris Burke from SI.com takes us through a convoluted yet still possible set of hypotheticals in which the Houston Texans -- who have tumbled to the NFL's worst record at 2-10 this season -- could still make the playoffs in 2013.
How is it possible? Well, it involves Houston winning its final four games, Baltimore and Miami losing their final four games and a host of other teams losing two or three games. Houston would then claim a strange and complicated tiebreaker for a wild card spot.
Far-fetched, but technically not impossible.
It made us wonder: Is it still mathematically possible for the Vikings to win the NFC North?
Well, yes it is ... technically.
What has to happen? The Vikings need to win their final four games.
The Lions need to lose their final four games.
(Conveniently, they play each other in the finale).
The Packers and Bears each need to go 1-3 (they play each other in the finale as well, so whichever team wins that game has to lose the rest of them).
If all that happened, the Vikings would finish 7-8-1, the Lions and Bears would be 7-9 and the Packers would be 6-9-1.
Not going to happen, we know, but still ... the math makes it technically possible.
The Vikings game has been over for about 18 hours now, and that's about the amount of time it took to completely process everything that happened. Here are five leftover thoughts from a 23-20 overtime victory over the Bears:
1) This is a "baby steps" kind of thing, but it was the first time all season the Vikings have allowed fewer than 23 points. When you think about what it takes to win in the NFL, it is pretty hard to imagine a lot of victories when you give up that many points. Last year's squad was 7-0 when allowing fewer than 23 points during the regular season and just 3-6 when allowing 23 points or more. And if Robbie Gould would have made the OT field goal, Chicago would have scored 23 and won on Sunday.
2) Speaking of that Gould field goal, we know he is supremely accurate, making about 86 percent of his career field goal attempts to rank among the best in NFL history. That said, it was not at all smart for the Bears and coach Marc Trestman to send him out on SECOND down to try a 47-yarder. What's the harm in trying another play, getting closer, maybe even picking up a first down? What's the difference in one more first down? Well, in his career Gould is 77 for 85 (90.6 percent) from 30-39 yards. He has NEVER missed from inside 29 yards in 73 career attempts. But from 40-49 yards? He's 65 for 90 (72.2 percent). While that still means he would have likely made it from 47 yards, he is SO MUCH BETTER if you move closer, just as many kickers are.
3) In case you were worried that Adrian Peterson might falter this season after his 2,000-yard campaign, he is leading the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing TDs. He was a thoroughbred on Sunday with 35 carries and more than 200 yards.
4) The numbers say Christian Ponder has performed adequately at times this season, but the eyeball test said this again Sunday: When Matt Cassel is running the Vikings' offense, it looks decidedly more professional and capable. And when it came to the fourth quarter, there is no doubt we would rather see Cassel trying to rally the team than Ponder.
5) After Chris Cook gave up several big gains to Alshon Jeffery and was ejected on the final one, would it be tempting to just cut him this week? Despite the Vikings' woeful depth at corner, it might be a message Leslie Frazier and the higher-ups want to send.
Before the nightmarish descent into a 2-8-1 record, before a comical quarterback carousel that included bringing in Josh Freeman midstream, before all of the gut-wrenching leads given up ... there was a team with some key young players coming off a playoff season and a 10-6 record.
The past cannot be undone. But in the present, and in the final five games of this season, this team -- and specifically its quarterback, Christian Ponder -- are hoping there are still things to prove.
We had a chance to talk with Ponder on Wednesday in as close to a 1-on-1 setting as you will get when someone is up at a podium. Leslie Frazier spoke first, and a large media contingent was there to pepper him with questions about the Erin Henderson situation and the week ahead.
When Frazier was finished, about three-fourths of the herd moved to the Vikings locker room. As Ponder walked up, there were only 3-4 of us remaining to talk to the starting quarterback.
That speaks volumes about the season and the Ponder fatigue. But it might have loosened the QB up a little. We asked him just how he can reconcile these 11 games and all they have brought, compared to the expectations when everyone was 0-0. His sense of exasperation over all that has unfolded was plain to see. He talked about the 2011 season, his rookie year, when the squad was 3-13 -- and how he never imagined he would go through a year like that this season because he feels like this year's team is so much better.
He talked about all the close losses. He talked about legitimately wondering if he was going to get a "pink slip" the day after Josh Freeman was signed.
And he talked about the good news being that the season isn't over.
Maybe that's wishful thinking. For practical purposes, the season is over. And as bad as the defense has been this year, the biggest symbol of this team's 2-8-1 record is Ponder -- just good enough to make you believe, and just frustrating enough when it really matters to make you hope for a high draft pick.
The stats say Ponder is the 19th-best QB in the league according to Total QBR. His number, 55.2, is better than the "average" of 50 and ahead of a lot of recognizable names. Three teams have two QBs each ahead of Ponder, so really you could say that according to that metric he has given Minnesota average QB play.
In the past three games, he has rushed for just eight yards. Part of that, he said, is by design as he tries to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions better. In two of those games, he had a passer rating (different than Total QBR) over 100. In the other, against Seattle, he was completely undone by a bad second half after a pretty good first half.
But look: we're not trying to build a case for Ponder here. We believe that ship has sailed and that his fate is directly tied to that of his team.
Maybe the only thing left is a five-week goal: that this team isn't as bad as its record shows.
This always happens, of course.
Things start going well, Minnesota fans start fueling up on optimistic thoughts about their favorite teams, and then the hammer falls -- or at least a brief stretch of rough play tempers that enthusiasm.
What makes the past week so disturbing is that the hammer has fallen on so many teams. Let's take a look:
*Gophers men's basketball: They entered the tourney in Maui knowing it would be their stiffest test of the season to date. They looked capable in playing close against Syracuse and again looked competent in leading Arkansas at halftime on Tuesday. Then all of their flaws were exposed in one half -- soft interior D, questions about ball security, limited depth -- and suddenly we're reminded that they are what we thought they were: a team that should improve but that has many limitations as Richard Pitino attempts to implement his style.
*Gophers football: Not all momentum is lost here by any stretch after a 20-7 loss to Wisconsin. But a week ago there were grandiose thoughts of a major bowl game -- heck, even the possibility of playing Michigan State on Saturday for the right to go to the Big Ten title game.
*Timberwolves: One week ago Tuesday, the Wolves went into Washington with a 7-4 record looking like one of the most-improved teams in the NBA. But a stretch of four losses in five games as the schedule has tightened up leaves the Wolves at .500 and many of us wondering if a squad that blows out bad teams can also win the close ones against better teams.
*Wild: The team is still sitting pretty with its overall record (15-6-4), even after a loss to St. Louis on Monday. But a brutal Western Conference means that playing the next 2-3 weeks without the injured Zach Parise while also figuring out a way to keep its goalies healthy makes this a critical stretch.
*Twins: OK, nothing has really happened here in the last week. But during free agency, with a team that has lost at least 96 games each of the past three seasons, no real news is not good news.
*Vikings: As noted before, the tie against the Packers could be the blow that knocks Green Bay out of the playoffs eventually. So Sunday's 26-26 draw isn't all bad. But they still blew a 23-7 lead and didn't get the satisfaction of beating their rivals ... while still falling in the potential draft positioning. Had they lost, they would hold the tiebreaker and have the No. 1 pick if the season ended today. As it is now, they would pick fourth.
*Gophers men's hockey: It was inevitable with a young team, but the Gophers put up their first real clunker of the season on Sunday, a 6-2 home loss to Minnesota-Duluth.