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Cassel’s play leaves Vikings wondering what might have been

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel passes against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Mall of America Field in the Metrodome Sunday in Minneapolis. USA TODAY Sports

Missing their top two running backs, their top two tight ends and their starting right guard, the Minnesota Vikings reached their highest point total since 1998 when they upset a Philadelphia Eagles team in the midst of a division title race, 48-30, at Mall of America Field on Sunday.

However, with the 4-9-1 Vikings having already been eliminated from playoff contention the previous week in Baltimore, there was a sad sense of what might have been mixed in with the joy of a rare victory.

Receiver Greg Jennings didn’t hide his feelings when asked if he has taken time to wonder what might have been had Matt Cassel been the quarterback all season. With reigning league MVP Adrian Peterson sidelined because of a sprained right foot, Cassel carried the Vikings with 382 yards passing, a 74.3 completions percentage, two touchdowns, a 116.6 passer rating and another score on a 6-yard quarterback draw.

“Yeah,” said Jennings, who caught a career-high 11 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. “You wonder.”

Cassel always refuses to look back or project what he’ll do this offseason, when he has an option for free agency or a second year with the Vikings. Cassel has remained patient and poised despite an odd season in which he has gone from Christian Ponder’s backup to starter to No. 3 to backup and, finally, starter again.

“You don’t really have much of a choice,” said Cassel, who is 2-2 as a starter. “I think the main choice is whether you’re going to let that get to you or you’re going to continue to move forward and have a positive attitude and help the guys around you. I chose to go that route than the other.”

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has been put in a difficult spot this season. Especially after general manager Rick Spielman went out and signed former Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman on Oct. 6.

Frazier started Freeman after only four practices with the first team. But that start against the Giants, which came just two weeks after Freeman was signed, was a colossal failure on Monday Night Football. Freeman suffered a concussion in that game and has not played since.

But rather than go back to Cassel, Frazier turned to Ponder, who continued his up-and-down career until suffering a concussion.

Frazier was asked why he didn’t stick with Cassel earlier in the season. Reading between the lines of his answer, one has to wonder just how much say he had in choosing the starting quarterback.

“We made those decisions at the time for different reasons,” Frazier said. “We always felt good about Matt, but there were some things we needed to see. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get wins when we were going through the process. That would have been a lot better. (I) knew why we were doing it back then, so hindsight is always 20/20.”

Matt Asiata was happy, but couldn’t help thinking about how much better Sunday would have been had his father, Pita, lived to see it.

In late October, Asiat’s father was driving a charter bus when it collided with a construction truck, killing Pita. Matt left the team for a while to be with his family.

Sunday, with Peterson (foot) and Toby Gerhart (hamstring) injured and inactive, the little-used Asiata was called on to carry the rushing load for the Vikings. Asiata entered the Eagles game with just three career carries. He finished with his first three NFL touchdowns.

“It was crazy,” he said after rushing for a 5-yard touchdown and a pair of 1-yard scores. “This means a lot. I just wish my dad was here to witness it. I know he’s with me right now in spirit.”

Asiata carried the ball 30 times. And even though he gained only 51 yards, his hard running enabled the Vikings to stay balanced enough for Matt Cassel to throw for 382 yards and a pair of scores.

Peterson had his heart, mind and soul set on playing Sunday, a week after suffering what appeared at first to be a serious foot injury that knocked him out early in the second quarter of a loss at Baltimore.

Frazier is the one who had to stand in front of the uber-determined reigning NFL MVP and tell him no.

“It was not an easy conversation, trust me on that one,” Frazier said. “He was pushing all the way to (Sunday morning). I had to fight the urge to say, ‘OK, give it a shot.’ I think at the end of the day he realized it was the right thing to do. He is superhuman in so many ways but the risk-reward, I just couldn’t see it.”

Frazier is hopeful that Peterson will be able to play this Sunday at Cincinnati.