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Vikings chuck Freeman audition in favor of competing with Cassel

The SportsXchange

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- With coach Leslie Frazier still trying to save his job near the end of a lost season and quarterback Matt Cassel coming off a 382-yard passing performance in an 48-30 upset win over the Eagles, it's pretty obvious the season will end without the Minnesota Vikings getting a second chance to evaluate Josh Freeman on the field.

Cassel is the unquestioned starter at the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Vikings (4-9-1) are 2-1 this month in part due to Cassel's play, and 6-2 in the past two Decembers. Beating the Bengals (9-5), who lead the AFC North and are 6-0 at home this season, would further boost Frazier's argument that he deserves another year to establish himself as an NFL head coach, as well as Cassel's contention that he's capable of once again being a regular starter, either here or somewhere else.

Throw in the expected return of running backs Adrian Peterson (foot) and Toby Gerhart (hamstring), cornerback Chris Cook (knee), right guard Brandon Fusco (knee) and tight end John Carlson (concussion) and, well, the Vikings are more excited about their chance at a third upset in four weeks than they are about whether Freeman will get playing time.

So pardon Frazier for sidestepping the question about wanting to get another look at Freeman, the former Buccaneers quarterback who was signed on Oct. 6, when the season concludes a week from Sunday against the Lions at Mall of America Field.

"I'd like to see Matt play well this week," said Frazier, who has switched back and forth among three quarterbacks because of injuries and performance this year. "Personally, you guys might not believe this, but I don't like juggling quarterbacks. I like to have a quarterback and not even have to worry about that position at all.

"Believe me, things would be a lot better, a lot easier. But we're counting on Matt having success and playing again the next week and leading us to victory the next couple of weeks. But right now, our focus is on this Cincinnati game. That's the most important one to our team."

Cassel is 2-2 as a starter. He also came on in relief against the Bears on Dec. 1 when Christian Ponder suffered a concussion in the final minute of the first half. It was Cassel's calm passing that led the Vikings back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to an overtime win.

Ponder, who gets credit for the Bears victory, is 2-6-1 this season. Freeman is 0-1 with his only start being the Oct. 22 Monday Night Football game at the Giants.

Freeman made his lone start and appearance after just four practices with the first team. It was assumed that the Vikings would take a long look at him since they were 1-4 and going nowhere. But a concussion suffered during a horrendous outing against the Giants led to Ponder returning to the lineup and Freeman disappearing for what appears to be the rest of the season.

It has been a somewhat puzzling situation since the Vikings beat out other teams to acquire Freeman and give him $2 million for 12 games. Freeman will be a free agent after the season.

What makes the odd situation less puzzling is the fact Frazier doesn't have a contract beyond 2014. The team didn't give him a multi-year extension after a surprising 10-win playoff season a year ago.

Not that Frazier wouldn't be trying to win anyway, but he really can't afford to be holding auditions at quarterback. Especially after how poorly things turned out the first time he gave Freeman a chance.

Cassel is 31 and in his ninth NFL season. Ponder, who is in his third season, and Freeman, who is in his fifth season, are 25. Where Cassel has set himself apart from the other two is poise in the pocket. Although, to be fair, Freeman's situation was completely different than Ponder's in that Freeman had been on the roster for only 14 days before he was asked to start a game.

Cassel, according to ESPN Stats and Information, ranks second among all NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 114.9 when facing five or more rushers. Ponder ranks 30th in that category with a 78.6 passer rating.

"Matt knows where to go with the football in pre-snap and gets it out of his hands because of that," Frazier said. "He doesn't hesitate. He knows exactly where it has to go and that's his veteran experience and the confidence he has that he can make those plays."

And with a head coach's job possibly hanging in the balance, Frazier understandably is focused on preparing Cassel for victory than auditioning Freeman for some other coach next season.

SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 6-5. The Vikings have never lost to the Bengals at home, but are 1-5 against them on the road. The last meeting came in 2009, a 30-10 win by the Vikings at the Metrodome. The last meeting in Cincinnati was a 37-8 Bengals win in 2005.

INJURY IMPACT

--RB Adrian Peterson (foot) missed the second half of the Baltimore game and the entire Eagles game, but is expected return this week at Cincinnati.

--RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring) missed the Eagles game but is expected to return on Sunday in Cincinnati. If for some reason Gerhart and Peterson can't play, the Vikings will lean on Matt Asiata again. Asiata went into the Eagles game with three career carries. He finished with three touchdowns in 30 carries for 51 yards.

--TE John Carlson (concussion) missed the Eagles game, but has passed the NFL protocol for concussions and is expected to return on Sunday.

--CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle) was injured at Baltimore and did not play against the Eagles. He missed practice on Wednesday and will need to make significant progress to have a chance to play on Sunday. Without Rhodes last week, punt returner Marcus Sherels made his fifth career start. He's not the most physically gifted player, but he's a quick little scrapper who knows how to stay in position.

--RG Brandon Fusco (knee) was injured in the Baltimore game and was unable to play against the Eagles. He's expected to play on Sunday. If he can't, Joe Berger, a quality veteran interior backup, has stepped in the past two games and held his own.

--CB Chris Cook (knee) was a surprise addition to the injury report last Friday. He was injured in practice and did not play on Sunday. He's expected to return Sunday. With Cook out, the Vikings gave Shaun Prater, whom they claimed off waivers from Philadelphia on Oct. 22, his first NFL start. Prater responded with his first career interception.
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