Can Matt Cassel Quarterback Chiefs to AFC West Crown & Playoff Win?

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Can Matt Cassel Quarterback Chiefs to AFC West Crown & Playoff Win?
John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

Quarterback Matt Cassel will win a playoff game as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Mark it down. 

This preseason, he appears sharper—mentally and physically—than he ever has, and his fan club is growing by the week. 

However, when Cassel inked his signature on a six-year contract in July of 2009, a smattering of skeptics emerged in Kansas City.

That club's membership increased every Sunday as the 2009 season unfolded, as Cassel led the Chiefs to a 4-12 record, throwing as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns.

However, 2010 was a different story. General manager Scott Pioli stockpiled talent through the draft—six of the seven picks have now started for the team—and surrounded his quarterback with playmakers.

In Week 1's Monday Night Football premiere against the San Diego Chargers, it was clear that the Chiefs had undergone a face-lift. As Cassel sprinted to the end zone after watching 56 yards of silky smooth cuts by Jamaal Charles, he celebrated as if he had just found a long-lost friend.

The quarterback's popularity gradually climbed until a wild-card blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens was placed on his shoulders. 

Unfortunately, 2011 began where 2010 left off. The extraordinary passer of a season ago reverted back to being ordinary. A host of injuries crippled the squad's success along with Cassel's numbers. 

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But while the Denver Broncos' signing of Peyton Manning has attracted the majority of this offseason's headlines, the Kansas City Chiefs have remained the hot pick to win the AFC West. And they will.

 

Division Outlook

Cassel temporarily quieted his naysayers by winning the division crown two seasons ago. Let's be clear: In a fantasy league, his own mother would trade Cassel for Tom Brady in half-a-heartbeat. He is never going to break single-season passing records like Drew Brees, and his numbers will never reside in the same neighborhood as Mr. (Aaron) Rodgers'. They don't have to. 

Give Cassel an intimidating ground game and he will thrive; play-action was the backbone of his effectiveness in 2010.

Pioli all but assured the Chiefs quarterback that he will have a ground game at his disposal again by signing Peyton Hillis (in addition to Jamaal Charles' return). If Cassel can regain his 2010 productivity, it will be enough to win the division. The AFC West is not going to be the nail-biting, four-horse race that it was in 2011. 

Through two preseason games, Peyton Manning has thrown a game's worth of passing attempts. The living legend has completed 20 of 30 passes for 221 yards. However, he hasn't found the end zone, and three of his 10 passes were intercepted. 

If you think those kind of numbers will continue throughout the regular season, there are 2-1 odds you spent your 401(k) on a Nigerian prince's traveling expenses. 

While Manning will look more like himself as the season progresses, his days of surgically dismembering defenses for 4,700 yards are over.

The Broncos' league-leading rushing attack packed its bags and left on a plane for New York City. The team also lost its defensive captain following Brian Dawkins' retirement. 

The San Diego Chargers continue to bid farewell to key contributors. Dual-threat Mike Tolbert and game-changer Vincent Jackson departed, while Ryan Mathews continues to be as durable as a piñata. The broken ankle of up-and-comer Vincent Brown only complicates life for Philip Rivers.

Anybody with a set of eyes can see that the Oakland Raiders were one of the clear-cut losers this summer. As a result of last year's Carson Palmer trade, Oakland's first selection of the 2012 NFL Draft wasn't announced until pick No. 95. The Bay Area also watched a group of familiar names—including now-Chiefs Stanford Routt and Kevin Boss—leave via free agency

Cassel and a relatively healthy Kansas City squad will be in prime position to recapture the AFC West. After all, 2011's injury-plagued roster only finished one game out of first place. 

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Playoff Picture

The AFC isn't what it used to be. 

The New England Patriots defense is constantly exploited, the Indianapolis Colts are rebuilding, the San Diego Chargers haven't conquered their division since 2009 and the New York Jets offense looks as threatening as a puppy named Boo.

The stars are in alignment for Kansas City to snatch its first playoff victory since Joe Montana debuted as a member of the Chiefs—an 18-year drought only topped by the Detroit Lions (20) and Cincinnati Bengals (21). 

The Chiefs' 2010, division-winning offense wasn't nearly as potent as this season's is on paper.

Two years ago, the team's No. 2 starter at wide receiver was Chris Chambers. Thomas Jones only averaged 3.7 yards per carry and then-rookie Dexter McCluster was a mere afterthought on offense.

In Kansas City, the names of Jon Baldwin, Steve Breaston, Peyton Hillis, Eric Winston and Kevin Boss were nothing more just than that—names. 

As of today, however, Cassel arguably has as many offensive options as any quarterback in the NFL. Quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn praised Cassel throughout the offseason, and Chiefs fans have seen why following two stellar preseason performances against the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams. Cassel has diced up the opposing defenses with ease—all without the help of his favorite target, Dwayne Bowe. 

It's easy to forget that just a couple of seasons ago, Cassel represented the Chiefs in the Pro Bowl.

In a quarterback- and pass-driven league that exists in a fantasy football world, individual parts are often greater than their whole. Super Bowls are annually won by the NFL's top-tier passers—something that Cassel is not.

However, Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer have proven that every rule has its exceptions.

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