With their margin for error all but nonexistent as they chase their sixth straight playoff berth, the New England Patriots were hoping to avoid any distractions while they spent the week in California preparing for their next game.
Instead, they’ll face what’s likely a must-win Sunday in Oakland with a grieving starting quarterback, an injury-ravaged defense and a wide receiver facing his former team for the first time since their bitter split.
The bevy of roadblocks almost seems fitting in what has been a roller-coaster season from the start. Last year’s Patriots became the first team in NFL history to go 16-0 in the regular season, but their 2008 fate became unclear in the first quarter of Week 1, when reigning NFL MVP Tom Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Since then, New England has had to overcome more obstacles just to stay in contention, with their linebacking corps severely depleted by injuries and two of their division rivals enjoying major resurgences.
The latest blow came Monday, when Matt Cassel’s father, Greg, died. Cassel, who has played well in place of Brady despite starting his first games since high school, left the team Wednesday to be with his family. He returned to practice the next day, taking part in stretches and throwing drills during the portion of practice open to reporters at San Jose State.
Although rookie Kevin O’Connell is next on New England’s depth chart, Cassel seems likely to start Sunday, although the team made no announcement.
“I think it’ll be good for Matt,” linebacker Mike Vrabel said Thursday. “I don’t think anybody can really relate to losing a parent, especially a father, but … we’ve got a support staff in there, and hopefully he can lean on his teammates.”
If Cassel does play, he wouldn’t be the first visiting quarterback to start in Oakland soon after the death of his father. Brett Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-7 win over the Raiders while with Green Bay on Dec. 22, 2003 - one day after his father’s death.
That win helped the Packers to a division title, and the Patriots (8-5) now find themselves in a similarly tight race. After they won 24-21 at Seattle and Favre’s New York Jets lost 24-14 at San Francisco last Sunday, the teams fell into a three-way tie along with Miami atop the AFC East.
The situation is especially perilous for the Patriots, however, who would be likely to lose a tiebreaker to either team - as well as Indianapolis and Baltimore in the wild-card race. Even if the Patriots win their last three games, they could miss the playoffs.
“For us, it is just going out there and make sure we do everything on our end to try and win games and let everything take care of itself,” said wide receiver Wes Welker, who leads the NFL with 96 receptions. “Basically, just control what you can control.”
On Sunday, they almost couldn’t control the struggling Seahawks, who nearly snapped a five-game losing streak at the Patriots’ expense. Seattle led for most of the game until Sammy Morris’ one-yard plunge with 2:44 left capped a 14-play drive to give New England the lead.
The Patriots sealed the victory when safety Brandon Meriweather forced a fumble by Seattle quarterback Seneca Wallace, a play that helped bail out a defense that has seen nearly half its starters slowed by injuries.
Safety Rodney Harrison is out for the season and defensive linemen Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork are questionable this week, but the linebackers have been hit especially hard, with Adalius Thomas on injured reserve and Tedy Bruschi and Pierre Woods also going down in recent weeks.
The mounting injuries prompted the team to re-sign linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau last week. Both had been out of football this season, but they saw substantial time against the Seahawks.
“I was surfing a week ago (but) there was no time to be thinking about that,” the 39-year-old Seau said.
The victory moved the Patriots to 21-2 in December since the start of 2003, but this year’s team has followed its last three wins with losses and hasn’t won back-to-back games since October.
They’ll hope spending the week in San Jose to prepare for the Raiders (3-10) will help change that.
The game also features a subplot surrounding Patriots receiver Randy Moss, who visits his former home for the first time since Oakland traded him to New England for a fourth-round draft pick before the 2007 season.
Moss was unimpressive in two seasons with the Raiders, and his former coaches reportedly questioned his effort after the trade, but he set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions during the Patriots’ 16-0 regular season last year.
The Raiders’ struggles, meanwhile, have continued, and a defeat Sunday would make them the first NFL team with six straight 11-loss seasons.
Oakland will be the Patriots’ third straight opponent with extra rest coming off a Thursday game, but the Raiders will also be trying to rebound from an ugly 34-7 loss at San Diego during which they gained only 163 total yards and nine first downs. Their only touchdown came on a kickoff return.
It’s unclear who will play quarterback for Oakland after JaMarcus Russell injured his ankle against the Chargers. Russell had been picked off twice, and Andrew Walter wasn’t any better, going 8 of 17 for 61 yards and an interception.
The Raiders have been held under 20 points in nine of their last 10 games.
“It’s clear that we’re not close,” cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. “We don’t play good football, we don’t play sound football. We’ve been undisciplined. You just wonder how many people care and how many people are upset.”