Over the course of a season, there are always going to be weeks that remind us we can never be too sure about anything in the NFL. A club that’s won five straight loses to an inferior opponent missing its best player. A defense that’s held nine consecutive teams to 21 points or less gets tagged for 48 by a replacement-level quarterback.
The Philadelphia Eagles are neither immune to that phenomenon nor different from anybody else. This season alone, we’ve seen Nick Foles tie a league record with seven touchdown passes in a game, and we’ve seen him complete a putrid 37 percent of his passes in another, which are the kind of unexplainable highs and lows that still leave people scratching their head.
So in many ways, Sunday was just another day in the NFL, in that all it took was 60 minutes against the 4-9-1 Minnesota Vikings to challenge our carefully-constructed perceptions about this Eagles squad, their defense in particular.
The Vikings. With reigning MVP Adrian Peterson and a litany of key players out with injuries. With Matt Cassel under center.
Cassel has a pedestrian 83.1 passer rating over a nine-year career. Last season with the Kansas City Chiefs, he committed twice as many turnovers (19) than he had games played (9). He hadn’t thrown for 300 yards and three touchdowns in a game since 2010. In fact, Cassel has thrown for over 300 yards in just eight of his 66 career starts; he’s thrown for less than 100 yards eight times—nine including playoffs.
The guy was an undrafted player who wasn’t even the starting quarterback in college. His claim to fame is quarterbacking a New England Patriots team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker to a 10-5 record, then bilking the Chiefs out of a ton of money for four years.
None of that mattered this week though. Cassel was in command from the outset, completing his first nine passes. One of those was a 57-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings, one the most flawless deep balls anybody has completed all season, eluding the pass rush to hit the wide receiver in stride over the top of the defense.
Cassel was unflappable in the face of pressure all afternoon, getting rid of the football quickly or standing tall in the pocket with a defender in his face to deliver a strike when the situation called for it. He was precise, completing 74 percent of his passes. He was prolific, going for 11 yards per attempt en route to 382 total. He was efficient, limiting mistakes to three sacks and one interception off of a tipped pass.
And he did it all without much help from the running game. Matt Asiata managed to punch the ball into the end zone three times from the goal line, but when the dust had settled, the third-string back had averaged just 1.7 yards on 30 carries. According to CSNPhilly.com's Reuben Frank, his 51 yards were the second-lowest total ever for a player with 30 attempts.
Maybe this game was more about Matt Cassel than it was the Eagles’ woeful secondary. Sure, they played poorly, but the same unit held the likes of Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Matt Stafford in check over the previous nine games—not exactly a murderer’s row, but all capable of posting a nice line.
Likewise, the same defense that allowed Jennings (11 REC, 163 YDS, 1 TD) to go over the century mark for the first time this season has handled the likes of Vincent Jackson, Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson, Pierre Garcon, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson this season.
After the game, even Chip Kelly conceded "Cassel was on fire."
For that matter, maybe the Vikings didn’t get enough credit coming into the contest. People looked at the record, the injuries—in addition to AP, the backup running back, the no. 1 tight end, a starting offensive lineman and their top three cornerbacks were all out—and, of course, Cassel, and assumed the Eagles should win in a walk.
Except nobody has won in a walk in Minnesota lately. The Vikings are 3-2-1 over their last six games. They’re legitimately tough.
Call this a trap game if you must, and yes, cornerback and safety will need to be addressed by the front office this coming offseason, for depth at the very least. But perhaps more than anything else, the Eagles’ collapse against the Vikings was simply brought about by an incredible individual performance from an unlikely source. It wouldn’t be the first time, and the way the NFL works, it won’t be the last.