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Playoff game a long time coming for Cassel, Chiefs

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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The memory did not return quickly for Matt Cassel.

"What do you remember about your last postseason start?" the Chiefs quarterback was asked this week.

After a brief pause that featured a furrowed brow, there came a flicker of recognition.

Taking advice from a pal and former teammate with plenty of experience, Matt Cassel says he will enjoy his playoff baptism. (Getty Images)  
Taking advice from a pal and former teammate with plenty of experience, Matt Cassel says he will enjoy his playoff baptism. (Getty Images)  
"That was awhile ago, back in high school against Palisades and we ended up losing," Cassel said with a smile. "We had a lot of fun. I handed off a lot. I think we lost 45-44."

Actually, Cassel and his Chatsworth (Calif.) High Chancellors fell 49-42 to the Palisades High Dolphins on the evening of Nov. 24, 1999, in a Los Angeles City Divisional quarterfinal game.

Over a decade later, Cassel gets another postseason start. It will not be the Dolphins of Palisades across the line of scrimmage this time. Rather, it will be the experienced Baltimore Ravens visiting Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs' first game in the playoffs since 2006 and their first postseason home game since the 2003 season.

Cassel's story is emblematic of the entire Chiefs roster when it comes to participation in the playoffs. There are 22 Kansas City players and nine starters with NFL postseason experience, leaving 31 players and 13 starters without substantial January memories. They'll go against a Baltimore team that has 42 players experienced in the playoffs, including 19 starters.

"There's no question they have more experience in the playoffs," said the most tenured member of the Chiefs, left guard Brian Waters. "But that all had to start somewhere and I think we are starting something here. We are a little bit under the radar. Nobody knows us yet."

Every year the NFL features an outhouse-to-penthouse saga. This year it's the Chiefs going from 4-12 and last place in the AFC West in 2009, to 10-6 and a division title in 2010. The turnaround happened in Year No. 2 of the GM Scott Pioli/coach Todd Haley era. The coaching staff features a host of grizzled Super Bowl veterans like defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel; soon to be departed to the University of Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis; offensive line coach Bill Muir; and assistant head coach Maurice Carthon.

Haley and his staff must now shift their approach from developing players into a team -- their charge over the past two years -- to going after a single victory to keep the season alive. They squeezed 10 wins and the AFC West crown out of a roster that has a mix of young and old, and a group that had most everything go its way during the 2010 season. They had no major injuries among starters and key contributors. They had a convenient schedule due to the mediocrity of the AFC West and their fourth-place finish in '09, as they played only two teams that made the playoffs (a loss to Indianapolis and a victory over Seattle.) They were the only division winner that did not have a winning intra-division record, going 2-4 vs. the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders.

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The football keys to their improvement came from the addition of Crennel and Weis as coordinators. Both sides of the ball had their best seasons since 2005, with the defense making the largest improvement. Crennel did it with essentially the same group that played so poorly the year before. Only starting rookies Eric Berry, Kendrick Lewis and Javier Arenas and veteran defensive lineman Shaun Smith were added to the roster as major contributors.

So using the parts he inherited, Crennel put together a defense that finished No. 14 in yards allowed, giving up 330.2 per game. The season before, under Clancy Pendergast, the defense finished No. 30, allowing 388.2 yards per game. In 2008, with Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator, the defense finished No. 31, allowing 393.2 yards per game.

That's a 63-yard difference from 2008 to '10. The defense was No. 14 against the run and No. 17 in passing yards allowed. Both were among the highest rankings in those areas in the past five years for the Chiefs.

On offense, the Chiefs finished No. 12 overall at 349.7 yards per game. They led the league in rushing at 164.2 yards per and finished No. 30 in passing with an average of 185.5 yards. The average total yardage per game was the highest since '05, and the rushing yards average was the highest for the Chiefs since 1981, when they averaged 164.6 yards per game.

The big factor for the Chiefs was the development of the players that were left in the cupboard by the former regime of Carl Peterson, Herm Edwards, and Bill Kuharich. They have been the heart of the improvement, from wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (1,162 yards, 15 touchdown catches), running back Jamaal Charles (1,467 rushing yards, 6.38 per-carry average), left tackle Branden Albert and right tackle Barry Richardson on offense to defensive tackle Ron Edwards, ends Glenn Dorsey and Wallace Gilberry (7 sacks), linebackers Derrick Johnson (147 tackles), Tamba Hali (14½ sacks) and Andy Studebaker, cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr and free safety Jon McGraw on defense.

Mix in a excellent 2010 draft class of Berry, Lewis, Arenas, multi-purpose threat Dexter McCluster, tight end Tony Moeaki and guard Jon Asamoah, along with veteran free agents like running back Thomas Jones, center Casey Wiegmann, right guard Ryan Lilja and Smith, and the pieces have come together for a solid if unspectacular team.

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Cassel's presence as a little-used understudy at Southern Cal behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and then four seasons in New England behind Tom Brady, explains his last postseason start coming in high school. It was Brady's knee injury in the 2008 season opener that provided Cassel an opportunity to play and he has now started 45 games in the past three seasons for the Patriots and Chiefs. Cassel made giant strides in '10, finishing the year with 27 touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions.

Cassel and Brady remain good friends and phone conversations this week have been helpful for the Kansas City quarterback.

"I continue to go to him for support," Cassel said. "He says to go out there and have fun and enjoy the experience because there are a lot of teams out there that are wishing they were in our position."

The playoffs are the time when quarterbacks establish themselves as the superstars of the game; Brady tops the list with a postseason record of 14-4. Spending one of those Super Bowl seasons with Brady gave Cassel an eyeful of what the starting quarterback needs to get done in the playoffs.

"I think it goes to preparation; he was so meticulous in his awareness of what was going on in the game plan," Cassel said of Brady. "We would go over the game plan four or five times on the night before the game. There wasn't any stone unturned. We made sure everyone was on the same page.

"The other thing I learned from Tom is when you get out there, enjoy the experience and embrace the opportunity. If you go out there and you are so shell-shocked that it's the playoffs, you won't enjoy it, and you really do have to enjoy it."

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