Cassel practices with Pats after father's death

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Matt Cassel returned to practice with the New England Patriots on Thursday morning after missing Wednesday's workouts following his father's death.

Cassel took part in stretching and throwing drills during the portion of practice open to reporters at San Jose State, where the Patriots are training between road games in Seattle and Oakland. He briefly left the club after his father, Greg, died Monday night in the Los Angeles area.

Although the Patriots made no announcement, Cassel seems likely to start on Sunday against the Raiders.

"I think it'll be good for Matt," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "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."

New England (8-5) is in a three-way tie with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets for the AFC East lead, but the Patriots have a 21-2 record in December games since 2003.

Cassel has steadily improved since taking over for Tom Brady in the season opener, passing for 3,052 yards and 14 touchdowns while ranking among the AFC leaders in most statistical passing categories. He played well last weekend against the Seattle Seahawks, rallying the Patriots from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter with a cool comfort that reminded many of Brady's best work.

But football wasn't the primary concern for the Patriots on Thursday.

"Maybe being around the guys might ease it a bit," fullback Heath Evans said. "I don't know that for a fact. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him this morning and tell him that I love him. At this time, that's about the only thing that you can know how to do."

Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who returned to practice Wednesday after leaving the game in Seattle during the first quarter with a shoulder injury, can relate to Cassel's emotions.

"I sent him a text and just told him I've been in a similar situation with both of my parents," Wilfork said. "He knows he's got a bunch of guys who love him."