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Honorable mention: Cassel gave Patriots his all

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / December 19, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Matt Cassel knew what his father would have wanted him to do.

That's why the Patriots quarterback played last Sunday, leading them to a 49-26 victory over the Raiders, a mere five days after learning of the death of his father, Greg. Cassel's career-high four touchdown passes were a bonus. He had honored his father's memory simply by suiting up.

That was his intention all along, said Cassel yesterday.

"I was just going to go out there and play my best. That's all I was going to do," said Cassel, speaking for the first time about his decision to play in the wake of his father's death. "It wasn't for me as much as it was for the team and everybody else. I knew that was what my father would have wanted - for me to go out and play. It was great to get a victory. And if we didn't get a victory, I still was out there giving 110 percent, and that's all I can do."

Cassel, who walked off the field with the game ball, acknowledged the victory had larger significance than keeping the Patriots in the playoff race. "It was a big win. It was a big win for the team. It was a big win for me, personally," he said.

There is no question Cassel will be playing Sunday against the Cardinals in another virtual must-win game for the Patriots, but the tone of this season has changed for him. He'll be playing with a heavy heart from here on out. A celebratory season, the most rewarding and successful of his career, is now a solemn one.

Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said Cassel has done an "amazing" job of dealing with everything that has been thrown his way this season.

"Obviously, just another example last week, understanding that he lost his father and coming back and playing the way that he did and being the leader that he has become on that team," said Warner. "[There are] so many things to commend him on [with] what he's accomplished this year. I think it's pretty incredible, and he deserves a tremendous amount of credit. I know there are a lot of great people in that organization that have helped him along the way, but I believe he deserves a lot of credit in the way that he's played this year and the way that he stepped in and has become a leader for that team."

It almost seems unfair that Cassel, who has gone from backup to season-saving starter, throwing for 3,270 yards and 18 touchdowns (against 11 interceptions), finds himself at the intersection of professional advancement and personal loss.

"Yeah, it was a tough year in the early going. No one believed in him. There were a lot of naysayers, and he proved everyone wrong," said left guard Logan Mankins. "Then to have this happen to him when everything was going so right for him. He's going to get through it. He has a good family. I'd like to think he has good teammates that are here for him."

Football is a little bit of an escape for Cassel, who attended his father's funeral in Mission Hills, Calif., Tuesday and was back with the team Wednesday.

He acknowledged yesterday that was the case last week, when he left the team Wednesday to be with his family in Los Angeles, then returned to practice Thursday and Friday in San Jose.

"It was a good distraction last week, there's no doubt," said Cassel. "Being around my teammates and having this secondary support factor with a family away from home definitely helped."

And Cassel's teammates are trying to be sensitive to his situation, trying to talk about the Cardinals' defense, blitz pickup, and sight adjustments.

Keep it to football talk, they figure.

"It's probably still a sensitive subject, so a lot of guys don't want to go there," said Mankins. "It's a big week, so we're trying to focus on the Cardinals and leave anyone's personal business out of the locker room right now."

But just because Cassel is looking for distractions doesn't mean he's distracted. He's honing in on the game plan for Sunday. Uncomfortable, but respectful, when answering questions about his personal situation, Cassel was happy to engage in hard-core football talk yesterday.

"They're a very good defense. They've got a lot of speed out there. They try to confuse you a little bit," said Cassel. "They'll give you multiple fronts, multiple looks. They'll bring different blitzes from multiple looks. They're going to be a challenge for us, and we've got to be able to manage their blitz zones and get the ball downfield on them."

More than once this season Cassel has had to redefine the term challenge. Each time he's responded in admirable fashion. Last Sunday was just the most prominent and personal example.

"I've overcome a lot of adversity, and I think it's [taught me] to keep pushing forward, and keep moving on, and don't listen to people who are negative and work against you," he said. "Just continue to surround yourself with people that are positive and can help you and things will turn around for you."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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