If you like statistics, Cassel passed with flying colors. Over the last month, he completed 62 percent of his passes and hit seven touchdowns against just one interception. His quarterback rating was a sparkling 100.9.
Based purely on his numbers, most fans are going to be happy. There's no doubt it would feel great to stick our heads in the sand and proclaim Cassel a success. Unfortunately, stats are for losers. The Chiefs blew opportunities to win two of their last four games for the same reason they lost at Indianapolis – Cassel saved his worst for last.
At Houston, Cassel had a chance to cut the opposition's throat with one pass. It sailed far over Tony Moeaki's head. The same situation repeated itself last week against the Raiders. Needing one completion to ice the game, Cassel threw a poor ball, forcing Dwayne Bowe into an awkward, diving catch that turned into a predictable drop. He followed up that effort with a three-and-out in overtime from the shadow of Kansas City's own goal line, almost guaranteeing Oakland the game-winning field goal.
Cassel has failed late in games.
Instead, the Chiefs are 27th in the league on third down, 5-3 and in a precarious position. So while it's unfair to blame Cassel entirely for the Chiefs' 2-3 stretch over the last five weeks, it's entirely fair to point out that they could have been 4-1 had he been able to make a difference when it counted. Considering the size of his contract, is there a reason Cassel should be excused for folding like a cheap tent when the Chiefs need him most?
The only thing this month taught us is that Cassel can't be counted on late in close games, and Kansas City's win over Buffalo is yet another example. Had Eric Berry not come up with an interception late in the fourth quarter, gifting Cassel with an undeserved chance to win the game in overtime, we'd be looking at a 4-4 team right now. The Chiefs would be in second place and clinging to fading playoff hopes.
Fortunately for Cassel, with his team in first place, those hopes are still very much alive. So that's his next challenge – can Cassel get the Chiefs to the playoffs?
With two games against AFC West bottom feeder Denver, a home game against the Arizona Cardinals and a trip to fading Seattle, the next month should be a cakewalk for the Chiefs. The Broncos, Cardinals and Seahawks all rank 23rd or worse in total defense while the Cardinals and Seahawks are 30th and 31st in offense.
A 4-0 mark would go a long way towards instilling some confidence in Cassel. Legit quarterbacks don't guide their teams to embarrassing losses against three of the worst teams in the league. Anything less than 3-1 during this stretch should be viewed as a failure. It doesn't matter how many yards or touchdowns Cassel throws for over the next month or what his quarterback rating is. This is the softest part of KC's schedule. They have to take advantage and set up a real run at the playoffs.
Can Cassel hold off Rivers?
The Chiefs, who visit San Diego December 12, are part of that easy stretch. Why? Because we have no reason to believe a team led by Matt Cassel can go into hostile territory against an elite quarterback and come out with a win. There's simply no evidence for it. Cassel was no match for Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub earlier this year. With the Patriots, Cassel was bested on the road by Manning and Rivers.
What it boils down to is this – Cassel failed to win a big divisional game against the Oakland Raiders last week. After a month against lousy teams, he'll start another big divisional game that could eventually determine who wins the AFC West. To win that game, he'll have to make enough plays to beat the NFL's leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
There are other ways the Chiefs can make the playoffs, obviously. But until other scenarios are absolutely necessary, we should only consider the simplest, most direct route, which goes directly through San Diego.
If Cassel can pull that off, there would be precious little anyone could say against him.