Matt Cassel may be done for the year, and there’s a chance he could be done in Kansas City too depending on how far the Chiefs fall without their starting quarterback, and with a weak-armed Tyler Palko now under center.

Cassel was wearing a cast on his right hand after Kansas City’s loss to Denver on Sunday, and despite the injury he was optimistic about his Week 11 status, telling reporters that he plans to play against New England next Monday night. Unfortunately, that optimism wasn’t shared by team doctors, and Chiefs head coach Todd Haley announced earlier this afternoon that Cassel has a “significant” hand injury that could end his season.

This is likely the final death blow for the Chiefs in 2011, a team that’s been decimated by injuries. The training room parade started in August when blossoming tight end Tony Moeaki was placed on the injured reserve with a torn ACL, the same injury that also ended Eric Berry’s season, and led to a genius NFL.com fantasy marketing campaign centered around Jamaal Charles.

The Chiefs seemed destined for a swift plummet to the bottom of the AFC–and the league–after those injuries, but then Jackie Battle emerged and Jonathan Baldwin returned after his preseason punch-up with Thomas Jones, and suddenly the the sun was shining over Dwayne Bowweeeee. But just when it seemed this team had found a new identity after its old one was shattered, losses to the lowly Dolphins and formerly lowly Broncos have clearly shown that the current, injury-riddled version of the Chiefs isn’t a playoff team.

Despite their injuries and recent stumbles, the Chiefs are still very much alive in the AFC West, a division that’s wanted by no one. Three teams (Chargers, Broncos, and Chiefs) are tied at 4-5, and are just one game back of Oakland. After thumping Oakland 28-0 in Week 7 Kansas City also holds the tiebreaker.

But don’t lie to yourself and pretend that the hope currently percolating in KC can sustain itself with Palko under center for the remainder of the season. The 28-year-old will make his first career start in prime time next Monday night against New England, and his first pass in that game will be his 14th career regular-season pass.

There are backups in this league that don’t cause hope to evaporate entirely with their mere presence. Jon Kitna threw 16 touchdowns and had three 300-yard games over nine starts while filling in for Tony Romo in 2010, and Matt Flynn nearly beat New England during his one-game cameo with Aaron Rodgers injured last year. Palko is more Curtis Painter than Kitna, and more Trent Edwards than Flynn.

Combine Palko’s presence with Kansas City’s painful schedule over the next five weeks (@NE, vs. PIT, @CHI, @NYJ, vs. GB), and suddenly it becomes easy to imagine a franchise that’s drafting in the top 10 next spring, a position where Cassel’s successor could be available if Matt Barkley and/or Landry Jones bolt for the NFL.

Cassel’s 29 years old, and he’s due to make $5.25 million in the third year of a six-year, $63 million contract signed in 2009. He’ll be 32 once that contract expires, and he’s currently 20th or lower in yards per completion (6.4) and completion percentage (59.5). That yards per completion puts him on the same tier this year as John Beck and Josh Freeman.

If the Chiefs fall far enough and are in a position to draft a younger, fresher arm with more upside next April, the temptation may be too difficult to resist for general manager Scott Pioli.

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