MINNEAPOLIS — Even while he manned the postgame media podium, his 31-year-old frame adorned in a gray cardigan and blue jeans, a thin bead of sweat trickled from underneath Matt Cassel’s flat-billed Vikings hat and down the right side of his face.
With the way things went Sunday against the Bears, Minnesota’s spot-duty quarterback may still be perspiring when he wakes up Monday morning.
“I think I’m a little tired,” Cassel grinned after leading the Vikings’ offense during the second half and overtime of a 23-20, just-when-you-think-you’ve-seen-everything win. “That was, emotionally, such an amazing game.”
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That’s one way to characterize it.
As he has in each of Minnesota’s three victories in a campaign gone astray, Cassel filled in for an injured Christian Ponder and — with an efficient, commanding performance — further muddled the answer to a quarterback query that may never glean a clear-cut answer. Even if it does, it won’t save a Vikings season that’s a few, last-minute gaffes away from carrying little more weight than simple pride in one’s occupation.
Yet that’s been the main drive behind Cassel’s hand in each triumph for 3-8-1, NFC North doormat Minnesota.
“I think that it just — for any of us — this is what we get paid to do,” Cassel said. “Our job is not to complain or worry about this, that or the other or who’s playing, who’s not playing. Our job is to go out, prepare and put yourself in the best position possible to be successful on Sunday.”
That was the ninth-year pro’s mentality when he signed a two-year, $7.4 million contract this summer, understanding he’d be a full-time backup.
But each outing like Sunday’s pokes another hole in Leslie Frazier’s signal-caller logic, begging questions about the coach’s loyalty to Ponder.
After Ponder got sandwiched between Bears defensive end Shea McClellin and linebacker James Anderson and left late in the second quarter, Cassel came in and completed 20 of 33 attempts for 243 yards and a touchdown. He helped set up not one but two overtime drives that ended in what appeared to be game-winning field goals — the first of which was nullified by a facemask penalty that pushed Minnesota out of Blair Walsh’s range and gave Chicago a real chance to pull out a second last-second head-shaker against the Vikings.
But Robbie Gould’s 47-yard field goal try, like Walsh’s second-chance, 57-yarder moments before it, was off the mark. Cassel’s 17-yard completion to Greg Jennings in the left flat, then Adrian Peterson’s 11-yard scamper, made way for Walsh’s 34-yard winner.
“He’s a great guy to have in your back pocket,” Jennings said of Cassel. The two free-agent acquisitions connected six times for 76 yards and a touchdown that brought the Vikings within 20-17 with 7:41 left in the fourth quarter.
In the front pocket, Frazier started Ponder for a sixth straight game. The 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft completed three passes and led Minnesota to 117 yards of offense and one score — Cordarrelle Patterson’s 33-yard run in the second quarter — then followed a trainer to the locker room with about a minute left in the first half.
The Vikings announced shortly after Ponder was displaying concussion-like symptoms. Frazier said he’d be reevaluated Monday.
“It’s unfortunate that Christian got injured, great that Matt came in and did the things he did,” said Frazier, whose seat may have dropped a degree or two in temperature after a tie in Green Bay last weekend and Sunday’s win. “We’ll sit down Monday and talk about where we are and figure out where Christian is health-wise over the course of the week.”
Ponder didn’t receive much early help; the Vikings’ first three possessions ended in third-down sacks. But with a steady dose of intermediate routes toward the middle of the field and heavily involving Jennings in ways Ponder hasn’t been able to, Cassel exhibited more command of the offense.
Couple that with the Kansas City transplant’s game-long role in a victory over Pittsburgh in London and closing duty in the Metrodome in a win against Washington, and Frazier still has some thinking to do — even with only four games remaining.
Clinging to the approach he has maintained since Ponder’s inaccuracy and indecisiveness issues began cropping up early in the season, Frazier said Ponder remains in the discussion to start next Sunday at Baltimore.
“Matt did a good job in relief; there’s no doubt about it,” Frazier said between commendations of his team’s fight and grit. “We’ll monitor Christian’s health throughout the week. We’ll sit down as a staff and talk about what’s the best direction to go.”
Cassel, despite his output, wasn’t willing to share any self-imposed solutions to his team’s quarterback enigma.
“You know what? I don’t make those decisions, to be completely honest with you,” said Cassel, who improved to 63.6 percent passing on the year. “My job is to go out and get prepared each and every week, and whatever the coach asks me to do, you know what? I’m gonna do it and put my best foot forward.”
Not all of Cassel’s purple-clad showings have been sterling; he threw two interceptions in a 35-10 loss to Carolina earlier in the year and looked almost as helpless as Ponder two weeks ago at Seattle.
But Sunday, he displayed “why we signed him in the offseason, to be able to do exactly what he did today and was fabulous in a lot of ways,” Frazier said.
And that wasn’t easy in a contest with more twists and turns than a Valleyfair ride.
After Chicago went up 10-7 via Alshon Jeffery’s 80-yard catch-and-run on the second play of the second half, Cassel completed 3 of 5 passes on a 13-play, 66-yard, field-goal-producing drive that chewed up the third quarter’s next seven minutes, 52 seconds. Bears quarterback Josh McCown found Jeffery again, this time for a 46-yard score, and Cassel was sacked on Minnesota’s ensuing possession.
The next time he took the field, Cassel found Jennings on an 8-yard corner route into the right side of the end zone that capped a 13-play, 89-yard possession.
That’s when things got crazy.
Linebacker Audie Cole inadvertently tipped a McCown pass to Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long, who took a couple steps before Cole stripped the ball away from behind. Marvin Mitchell recovered, and the Vikings took over at Chicago’s 18-yard line.
But Cassel’s slant toss to infrequent target Rhett Ellison bounced off the tight end’s hands. Bears linebacker Khaseem Greene pulled the ball out of the air and raced to the 50 before Cassel managed to drive him out of bounds. Minnesota, though, forced a three-and-out, giving Cassel another chance at his own 9.
He fumbled a shotgun snap that eventually led to fourth-and-11 scenario from the 8 but found Jerome Simpson over the middle for 20 yards to keep the Vikings’ hopes afloat. Then Cassel connected on passes of 24, 17 and 21 yards to put Walsh in position for a 30-yard, overtime-forcing field goal with 24 seconds to go.
In Minnesota’s second extra period in as many weeks, Cassel completed 3 of 4 passes to counterbalance Peterson’s nine yards on 51 carries — part of a gutsy, 211-yard outburst that put the superstar running back over the 10,000-yard mark for his career.
“Very poised,” said Simpson, who caught three passes for 76 yards. “I love the way he came in there and just led us and just being Matt Cassel.”
Said offensive tackle Phil Loadholt: “He’s been in this league a long time. You can’t throw too much at him he hasn’t seen, so we got full confidence in Matt anytime he can come in. He’s been around, so we trust him.”