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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
But as big of a deal as that news conference was Tuesday afternoon, there was a reality check less than 24 hours later. The Yankees once again opened their giant checkbook and reportedly agreed to terms with free agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury on a 7-year, $153 million deal. This makes Ellsbury the next Johnny Damon when it comes to Beantown Betrayal.
It also represents more than triple in total value what the Twins paid for Nolasco, and nobody really bats an eyelash when the Yankees do it.
All of this, too, while the Yankees are reportedly trying to cut payroll.
Then again, the Yankees' version of cutting down means getting just under the $189 million luxury tax threshold. Even if New York wound up at, say, $185 million for next season, they would still dwarf the Twins and many other teams.
This isn't news, just review -- and a reminder that on a day the Twins spent twice as much as they ever have on a free agent, it was learned the Yankees have committed to spending more than three times that pumped up figure. We wrote a couple months back about spending vs. winning and the correlation. Again, what it comes down to in our mind is this: If the Twins are wrong about Nolasco and he flops, that is a devastating blow to their hopes. If the Yankees miss on a guy like Nolasco, they can always buy another one.
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.
We popped over to Target Field this afternoon for Ricky Nolasco's introductory news conference with the Twins. According to the official press release, he has a four-year contract at $12 million per season every year from 2014-17 and a club option with the potential to vest in 2018.
*It sounded like Nolasco really enjoyed pitching for the Dodgers in the pennant race last season, when he was 8-3 with a 3.52 ERA. He has a lot of family in California and that was a major boost for him, he said. That will obviously not be the case in Minnesota, where he had never been before pitching for the Marlins at Target Field last year. He was here in April, when it was brutally cold. In fact, he pitched in a double-header that was part of a makeup for a snow/cold postponement.
*Twins GM Terry Ryan did not think the contract was a departure from the Twins' philosophy, even though it more than doubled the previous largest free agent deal given out. Ryan pointed out that Joe Mauer's contract isn't exactly chump change. He also said that if the team was still in the Metrodome, this deal likely wouldn't have happened. That said, Ryan made it clear that free agency isn't his preferred method of team-building.
*Ryan also made it sound like the team cast a very wide net in free agency. They liked everything about Nolasco and clearly he was an early target, but he wasn't by any means the only target. It's unclear when the team's deal with Phil Hughes (3 years, $24 million reportedly) will be announced.
*Nolasco was flattered by how much the Twins wanted him. It was also revealed that he has an affinity for muscle cars. Hopefully he'll clock in faster on the radar gun with his pitches than his driving.
The Gophers will learn their bowl game fate on Sunday, but when it comes to being practical, their fate seems pretty much sealed -- even if their web site offers a bit of optimism.
Take a look at ESPN.com ... then SI.com ... the CBSsports.com ... and you'll find the same thing: the Gophers are projected to wind up back in Houston in the same bowl they played in last season -- called the Texas Bowl now, and formerly the Meineke Bowl.
What prompted our curiosity earlier in the day was an e-mail from the Gophers asking the same question as was posed on a link to their web site:
The Golden Gophers are eagerly anticipating bowl game selections, which will be announced this Sunday, December 8. We realize the level of commitment a bowl game takes in all aspects including time, travel, financial and planning, particularly surrounding the holiday season. The support from Gopher fans this season in the Twin Cities, in the state of Minnesota and across the nation is indescribable, and it is our hope that support continues to the post-season bowl game. We are asking for your feedback on the potential bowl games you will travel to once the bowl game is selected. This feedback is important and helpful to our cause in terms of our ability to communicate the expectations of Gopher fan support and attendance at the bowl game to the bowl selection committees. The likely potential bowl games for the Gophers, along with dates and locations are provided below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, Go Gophers!
Which potential Gophers bowl game destination would you be most likely to attend?
Gator Bowl - Jacksonville, Fla. (Wednesday, January 1 / 11 am. Central)
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - Tempe, Ariz. (Saturday, December 28 / 9:15 p.m. Central)
I do not plan to attend the Gopher Bowl game this year
Those two bowl games were the only options. No Texas Bowl in sight. But a spokesman for the U said not to read anything into it. The e-mail and corresponding survey are merely information-gathering tools. In other words, they don't know anything we don't know.
The smart money is that they will be playing Friday, Dec. 27 at 5 p.m. (Central) on ESPN in the Texas Bowl. They might even play Texas Tech again, just as they did in losing 34-31 a season ago.
If that seems like an unfair plight considering the Gophers have won two more games this season than a year ago, remember that Ohio State and Penn State, who would have been ahead of Minnesota in the bowl pecking order a year ago, were ineligible for the postseason so the Gophers landed in a better bowl than they normally would have. The school announced 3,163 tickets to last year's bowl game were sold through the university. It will be interesting to see if they can top that mark this year if Houston is, indeed, the destination again.
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