- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Eleven days after having an appendectomy that limited him in practice and kept his availability for Sunday’s crucial game against the St. Louis Rams in question until moments before kickoff, Matt Cassel lifted the Chiefs to a crucial 27-13 win. The victory was an important step toward securing Kansas City's first AFC West championship since 2003.
“After today, fans have to appreciate this guy,” said Waters, the Chiefs’ standout 11-year guard. “I know a lot of people doubted Matt, but they shouldn't doubt him anymore. There’s no question he’s our leader and he’s a very good football player. I told him before the game that he didn’t need to be Superman out here today ... but on a few plays, he actually looked like Superman.”
Added Kansas City running back Thomas Jones on Cassel’s performance: “For a guy to come back, after having an organ removed from his body ... it’s definitely extraordinary.”
If the Chiefs end up going to the playoffs, Cassel’s performance Sunday will go down in Kansas City annals as one of the more heroic performances in its professional sports history. Cassel never truly tested his strength all week and sat out a portion of pregame warm-ups just to save energy.
“This is not a common thing,” Kansas City coach Todd Haley said. “[It’s] not a thing we have had a lot of experience with, so you have to depend on the medical staff and be sure that you are not putting someone in a compromising situation.”
Well after backups Brodie Croyle and Tyler Palko were on the field throwing balls to receivers, Cassel gingerly entered the field and played short toss with a Kansas City support member. Yet, when the game started, it was clear Cassel was on the field for more than a cameo appearance or merely moral support. He was playing to energize Kansas City's playoff hopes.
Cassel moved without pain and led Kansas City to 20 unanswered points. In the end, Cassel was his usual efficient self, completing 15 of 29 passes for 184 yards. He threw for one touchdown and was intercepted once. Those aren’t exactly classic star numbers. But without Cassel leading this offense, the Chiefs have proved they can’t move the ball.
“I knew he was either going to be throwing up blood or making plays,” Waters said of Cassel.
Added St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo: “I think his statement was, 'Hey, I’m not afraid to run it, I’m not afraid to throw it. I’m here to play ball.’ "
On Sunday, Cassel led Kansas City to 27 points. Last week, with Cassel resting on his couch, the Chiefs had 67 yards offense as the Croyle-led squad was brutalized, 31-0, against San Diego.
After Cassel’s performance and its bounce back from last week's disaster-by-the-sea, Kansas City is now 9-5. If the Chiefs win their final two games -- at home next week against Tennessee and on Jan. 2 against Oakland -- they will win the division. If the Chiefs -- who are 6-0 at home this season -- lose once and San Diego (8-6) wins its final two games, the Chargers will win the division. San Diego plays at Cincinnati next week and at Denver to close out the season. (Check out ESPN's NFL Playoff Machine and playoff standings.)
“As the quarterback, I certainly want to be out there as much as possible,” Cassel said. “Any chance I had to play this week, I was going to do it.”
Cassel’s presence clearly lifted Kansas City.
“To see our quarterback rush back after an injury like that was impressive,” Kansas City receiver Chris Chambers said. “It made us all elevate our game. Matt showed he’s something special.”
Last season and earlier this season, many Kansas City fans were dissatisfied with Cassel, who was acquired from New England in 2009 and was given a $40 million deal. After a sluggish start in 2010, many thought the Chiefs should not exercise the option on Cassel after this season and perhaps pursue Philadelphia’s Kevin Kolb in the offseason. Over the past two months, though, Cassel has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. He has thrown 24 touchdown passes with just five interceptions this season.
Kansas City has the NFL’s best running game (it added 210 yards on the ground Sunday) and a surprisingly stout defense -- the basis of a solid team. On Sunday, Cassel showed he’s the nucleus of the team. It is clear he is going to be the Chiefs’ quarterback for the long term. If Kansas City is still playing in January, Cassel will give them a fighting chance.
“He was [a hero],” Waters said. “What he did out there and how he lifted us today was a big deal.”