Minor weaknesses dot these teams. Except for Arizona, which needs to bring in more help to really run Bruce Arians' offense.
04 Jan 2006
by Will Carroll
As we put up the new calendar and begin flipping pages, we're down to 12 teams. It would seems that sending 20 teams home would make the job of keeping track of who's healthy and who's not that much easier, but don't count on it. Injuries and team health now have more of a perceived importance, and guys who are headed for a couple months of rehab are harder to keep track of when they're not under the constant watchful eye of team medical staffs and my network of sources. We'll take a quick look today at the eight teams that will be playing this week, plus a couple of other major injuries. We'll catch up with the top two seeds in each conference after a week of rest. The playoffs are ready, so let's get to it.
If chanting â€œWho Deyâ€? was enough to get the Linz Family the money in this year's Amazing Race, will it be enough for the Bengals? They'll face a familiar foe this weekend and deal with familiar injuries at the same time. The running back situation is fluid, with Rudi Johnson banged up due to workload, but rested and ready despite the knee injury. He'll have Chris Perry back behind him, though his cameo in Week 17 wasn't enough to tell us if the ankle is fully healed. Here's just the first of many teams that really could have used the off-week granted to the top two teams. Carson Palmer has fat bank now and a mild groin strain, neither of which should affect him in the game. Where Palmer does have a concern is with his tackle Levi Jones, who's struggling with a shoulder injury. The team looked bad against Kansas City, but who knows how that will carry into their third meeting with the Steelers, given that half those guys won't even be on the field this week. At least the defense is healthy and the fans will be rabid. You know, Cincy, they have shots for that now.
There's a reason New England is playing on what's oddly called â€œWild Card Weekendâ€? rather than resting up and prepping Foxboro for another set of games. It's almost purely injury. While the comeback of Tedy Bruschi was perhaps the best medical story this season, his calf injury could mar the injury-decimated defense's ability to hold the Jaguars. With Rodney Harrison gone and Richard Seymour limited, Bruschi is once again the key to the team's defense, both physically and mentally. Over on the offensive side of the ball, Tom Brady and Corey Dillon have played through minor injuries effectively. Not having the bye week could factor in a bit here; they'll be challenged by the Jaguars, and one less week of rest is pretty massive for a team that really lacks depth at this stage. Still, this may be the healthiest that the Pats have been all season long and defending their championship is possible.
The Jaguars may not have any axe injuries this season, but they've kept me busy all year long. With Byron Leftwich back (though David Garrard will probably see some time and action), the team is worried about its defense. Mike Peterson will try to play with a cast on his wrist, but the team is shifting linebackers in practice to be sure they're ready if Peterson is unable to go or ineffective if he does. Defensive ends Reggie Hayward and Paul Spicer are dealing with injuries while the Jags are trying to keep the condition of Kenny Wright quiet. All three will play, though how well remains a question. How well Leftwich will play, on the other hand, is not. The quick-healing freak QB is not expected to have any limitations and my best Jaguars source says his mobility is at or near normal. Running back Greg Jones is expected to play, but will be limited after missing two weeks. Fred Taylor is likely to get the bulk of carries, and the Pats will see some of LaBrandon Toefield.
There's only one injury that's counted all season for the Steelers. Yes, I realize they dealt with injuries to the running backs all season, but the Steelers handled that the way smart teams do â€“ with depth. Whichever running back lined up behind Ben Roethlisberger didn't matter. They each brought something different but the same results. The same wasn't true when Roethlisberger was out with a knee injury. Back due to the advances in sports medicine, Roethlisberger has been affected more by his thumb injury than he ever was by the cartilage tear. According to team sources, Roethlisberger's injury has reduced his touch, resulting in more drops. â€œHe throws the ball too hard on some short throws,â€? I was told, â€œand can't drop it over a defender like he normally can.â€? On the defensive side, only Kimo von Oelhoffen has any real concern. His sore ribs will keep him from playing as much as normal, forcing more of a rotation on that strong Steelers front line.
The Panthers head into their first playoff game relatively healthy. Once Stephen Davis gave up the ghost on this season, the team really didn't have many serious issues. DeShaun Foster has some questions about his painful toe and his durability. He was available for duty during the Panthers' push, putting up some nice yardage. Still, his ability to run will be a major factor in whether the Panthers are a challenge or a pushover. I think it's pretty clear that the Panthers ability to stay healthy, or what passes for healthy in the NFL, is the reason they're headed to the postseason and several other teams are headed for tee times. Add in a great comeback from Steve Smith and you have a nice formula for winning. Over on the defensive side, only Dan Morgan is a question. He's expected to play, but his status is questionable in both senses. If he plays, only the Panthers have much of an idea how effective he'll be.
Beyond the Clinton Portis Crazy Train Whistle Stop Tour, the Redskins have a number of important inuries that will affect the team as they head to Tampa. Portis has a sore shoulder that was exacerbated in Week 17, but figures to strap up and be the same great back he has been for the last month. The defensive backfield is a much bigger question with Carlos Rogers (biceps), Matt Bowen (knee) and Shawn Springs (back, groin) expecting to play but likely to be targeted by Jon Gruden. The ability of Joe Gibbs and his staff to protect those players, spot in the backups smartly, and gameplan effectively will be key. The linebackers will also be tested â€“ Chris Clemons joins Mark Brunell in the â€œtorn MCL, still playingâ€? club, which may force more playing time on LaVar Arrington. The Skins are also hopeful Brunell's knee won't continue to be the problem it has been. Brunell's knee problem and lack of mobility have put the load on Portis. A return to the playoffs may have to be enough for the Redskins if the strain of just getting there broke the team down this much.
It was last year when I was sitting at the NFL combine with two scouts, trying to convince men that know infinitely more about football than me that Cadillac Williams was going to be a better NFL back than Ronnie Brown. It's hard to tell in the abstract, but Williams has the hardware, despite a foot injury that continues to limit him some. That injury will come more into play if the Bucs find themselves in a cold-weather situation again. Michael Clayton won't play throughout the playoffs due to turf toe, but the team hasn't missed him and won't. The rest of the team is relatively healthy, with only Jermaine Phillips (knee) and Anthony McFarland (hamstring) worthy of even a brief mention. Aside from the long-injured Brian Griese, this is the team that Jon Gruden expected to take to the playoffs. If I gave out something like the Dick Martin Award for Best Medical Staff in the NFL â€“ and yes, I'm working on a method for doing that for next season â€“ I have a feeling that Todd Toriscelli would be looking for shelf space. Then again, I'd like to hear some of you pigskin medheads make a case for your team in comments.
While Jeremy Shockey has some minor matching ankle injuries, it's a depleted linebacking corps that will be the biggest injury situation for the Giants. All three of the season-opening starters, Antonio Pierce, Carlos Emmons, and Reggie Torbor, are all out this week or beyond. That would test the depth of any team, and the Giants are scrambling for options. Is there any pattern to the series of ankle injuries the Giants have suffered? From this vantage point, no, but the sheer numbers are hard to ignore. It could be turf, shoes, taping philosophy, or just dumb luck, but I'm sure the Giants will be trying to figure it out to keep this from recurring next season.
Drew Brees ended the season on the sideline, but reports have him not staying there long. A labrum tear is a death sentence for a pitcher, but surgery to return is only four months according to the best sources in football. I'll remain skeptical, wondering if my initial instinct of thinking â€œBrees = Chad Penningtonâ€? is a good equation. That would make the Chargers' off-season decision on Philip Rivers even more important â€¦ The Bears will be covered in more depth next week, but seeing Cedric Benson running last week was an important moment. The franchise reached the postseason on the strength of its defense, but Benson signals an improved offense for the future. His knee injury at midseason looked serious and the type of injury that has ended careers or at least kept talented players from reaching their potential. Benson and the Bears medical staff deserve kudos now and when Benson puts up a couple thousand-yard seasons down the line â€¦ Braylon Edwards had his ACL repaired this week and expects to be ready for the start of the 2006 season. Remember that while a return to playing comes in about that time, it often takes another full season to regain full performance â€¦ Special thanks to Rotowire.com for all their assistance this season. They've deserved a byline on much of my reports â€¦ It's a nice irony to be a (mostly) baseball writer who lives in what's becoming a great football town. A #1 playoff seed and being the home of the Combine is turning Indy into a pigskin bonanza â€¦ It's an admittedly small pool, but have there ever been more valuable twins than the Barbers, Ronde and Tiki? â€¦ No offense to the city and its residents, but â€œThe Road to Detroitâ€? doesn't have quite the ring of some warmer destinations, does it?
39 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2006, 4:34am by laura