FOXBOROUGH - Matt Cassel's 16-game crucible of a regular season comes to a conclusion when the Patriots travel to Buffalo for a showdown with the Bills Sunday. The finale has important ramifications regarding New England's postseason plans and, quite possibly, Cassel's future with the team.
The Patriots can clinch the AFC East title with a win over the Bills combined with a Jets win over the Dolphins, and they can clinch a wild-card berth with a win or tie at Buffalo and a loss by the Ravens against Jacksonville.
If New England fails to make the playoffs, could it be the last time Cassel plays quarterback for the Patriots?
"I don't know," Cassel said yesterday. "Nobody knows the future. If anybody knew the future, I probably wouldn't be here right now, with a lot of people predicting that I wouldn't be here after the preseason.
"The fact is, nobody knows where I'm going to be next year and I could definitely be back here, but it's some thing that we're going to have to wait and see."
"We're not looking at it like that," said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. "We know that Matt loves it around here and, hopefully, we will have another game after this one."
If the Patriots do qualify for the tournament, it will prolong what's already been "a long journey" for Cassel, who ascended from the role of lightly regarded backup to emergency starter when Tom Brady suffered a season-ending left knee injury on the 15th play of the opener Sept. 7 vs. the Chiefs.
Cassel's journey took a jarring personal detour when he dealt with the Dec. 9 death of his 52-year-old father, Greg. Cassel rebounded from that family tragedy to guide New England to back-to-back wins at Oakland Dec. 7 (49-26) and vs. Arizona last Sunday (47-7), giving the Patriots a 10-5 record.
"When you first jump in there, you have to establish a new role for yourself and amongst your players in the locker room as a leader," said Cassel, reflecting on his season. "And then, as you move forward in the season and you start to earn the respect of your teammates and coaches, then it starts to become fun again and you start to have fun playing the game.
"As a quarterback, all you want to look for is that you want to continue to progress and that you continue to give your team the best opportunity to win each and every week, and I think, for the most part this season, I've been able to do that."
But it remains to be seen whether Cassel will continue to do so next season.
The invaluable experience Cassel gained this season likely will make him a hot commodity on the open market. He will be able to peddle himself as a leading man rather than an understudy to those teams desperate for an experienced starter.
"I'm very, very impressed with the way he's played the game, and clearly it's been an advantage to him also to be in the system, to be with Tom and to watch how it's done," said Bills coach Dick Jauron. "To study it, to look at it, to help in it, all the things that quarterbacks do, and they've had time to bring him along and he's viewed success.
"He's done an outstanding job and he's clearly a very good athlete on top of all of that. You have to take your hat off to him."
So what's been the best part about being a member of this team over the last four years?
"Just the people," Cassel said. "Your teammates. They've got such a great group of guys here. You build such a chemistry with these people and relationships on and off the field. Then, also the coaching here, from Coach [Bill] Belichick on down to Coach [Josh] McDaniels, what they're able to do always amazes you.
"As a young player who's eager to learn and eager to get better, they continue to put you in great situations. They want to help you learn and they want to help you become a better player, and that's something that I really appreciate the most over these last four years being with the Patriots."
So when he says "I could definitely be back here," does Cassel mean to say he would like to be back?
"Of course I would," he said. "I love the Patriots. I love this organization. And, like I said before, I love the people."
But the only way the Patriots could keep Cassel from free agency would be to slap the franchise tag on him.
If they did that, would it be like finding a lump of coal in his Christmas stocking?
"I don't know what the situation might be," Cassel said with a chuckle. "But the Patriots are home to me, and right now that's all I've ever known in my professional career."
Given all that Cassel has meant to the team this season, Patriots fans probably would like to keep it that way.
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com