Andrew and Sterling take an awards-style look at the crowded playoff picture. Plus, a special Thanksgiving Loser League announcement!
11 Jan 2008
by Will Carroll
The Chargers came out of their Wild Card weekend game with some injuries, but when they line up in Indy on Sunday, they may surprisingly have all their starters, including one few expected to see. Antonio Gates is the big question mark. While his turf toe will certainly limit him, no one -- including the Chargers -- has any idea how severely. He'll certainly be given painkillers, but if he's able to run, the Colts defense (specifically the undersized Bob Sanders) will have to account for him. If Gates can't play at even a fractional level, Sanders will be able to roam more and support the run defense. More significant, however, is the return of Lorenzo Neal. Just a month to the day after breaking his fibula, Neal is back at practice and looks to be ready to clear paths for LaDainian Tomlinson. The Colts defense had a lot of difficulty with Neal in their first game, so this is a significant return. The Chargers also have Philip Rivers still affected by his knee sprain and kicker Nate Kaeding nursing a plant leg injury, but both expect to play at the same level as last week.
The Colts used the bye week to get healthy, making them an even more formidable unit. While everyone is focused on the will-he-or-won't-he regarding Marvin Harrison (answer: I don't know yet), the team's week off has brought Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, and Anthony Gonzalez back to nearly 100 percent, while also allowing Freddy Keaiho and the offensive line to gear up a bit more. In fact, the only starter who may not be available on Sunday is Ben Utecht, the second tight end, who can be ably replaced by Bryan Fletcher and Luke Lawton. Utecht did practice on Wednesday and Thursday, so the team could well be at full strength. A Colts team with stability and all its weapons is certainly dangerous, especially with an angry Peyton Manning looking to avenge his worst performance as a pro.
The Jags come into the game relatively healthy -- and given a roster peppered with the injury-prone, or at least the very risky, that's an accomplishment. Aside from the important injury to middle linebacker Mike Peterson, who hasn't been able to return from a shattered hand, the team is essentially intact. John Henderson has a balky hamstring, but there's little question that he'll play at this point. If he can't, Grady Jackson's stamina could be tested, moreso if the Pats use their no-huddle. The Peterson injury is big, though the Jags have shown that they have adequate depth and can play near their top level without him. Unfortunately, Peterson matches up extremely well with the Pats attack and would have been a major plus. The rest of the team is injury-free, and while Fred Taylor is never going to be 100 percent at midweek, he's been very solid all year long. If there's ever a textbook example of how to best use a running back tandem, it's going to be Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.
The Pats got last week off, but there's some question as to whether it was enough to get the right side of the line back in front of Tom Brady. (Brady's shoulder? It's probable, of course.) Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe believes that Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal will play on Saturday, putting all the pieces in place. Aside from the line, there are no major injury problems and barely any minor ones, aside from the typical nicks and stamina questions that every team has at this stage of the season. If anything's going to stop the Pats' march to history, it's not going to be the fault of Jim Whalen and his staff.
The Seahawks have fought their way through injuries all season long, so is it any surprise that the injury story will be significant? Mike Holmgren deserves credit for assembling a deep roster that was able to shift its focus when injuries caused problems. The offense could go run- or pass-heavy when needed, which makes this week's matchup interesting. For the first time all season, all the offensive weapons are available. There's some debate, especially around these parts, as to how much injuries have held back Shaun Alexander, so maybe we'll see this week. Walter Jones is expected to play despite missing two days of practice. Both D.J. Hackett (ankle) and Deion Branch (calf) are expected to play. If there's a question mark, it's the polypained quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck has a thigh injury that's limiting his already limited mobility, an oblique strain that's hurting his deep throws, and bruised ribs that could be tested by Aaron Kampman. The defensive side might be a bit more healthy, but any limitations on Patrick Kerney (knee) will be problematic. He certainly was a problem for the Redskins last week, and that kind of pressure is key on Brett Favre, who can be forced into some ... let's call them "questionable" throws.
On the other side of the field, there are a couple minor injuries. Greg Jennings is injury-prone, but productive, and he has played well despite his various issues. He'll come back to start after two weeks off due to an ankle sprain. Having a couple targets should help Brett Favre, though weather could play a factor in how well Jennings is able to play. Don't expect many hard cuts or double-moves. In fact, Jennings' biggest contribution could come as just a decoy to free up Donald Driver. On the defensive side, the Packers are concerned about Charles Woodson's ability to cover the now-healthy quartet of Seahawks wide receivers. He has played much of the last month with turf toe, and as most of these types of injuries go, there's been little improvement. With Al Harris healthy on the other side, Woodson could see even more balls thrown his way and may need some safety help.
This game doesn't quite come down to the health of the teams' top wide receivers -- Terrell Owens and Plaxico Burress -- but it may seem that way as we pre-analyze it. Either team could survive without its best weapon, but would be significantly weaker. Both teams have quality number two and even number three receivers now, especially with the return of Terry Glenn for the 'Boys. Both teams have power running games and good (if occasionally unfocused) quarterbacks. No, with Owens running solid routes in practice and Burress saying he has never felt better, the injuries shouldn't be much of a factor unless what we're seeing is pure smoke, which doesn't seem likely. As we all know, this game won't be decided by team health, game plans, or matchups. It's just a matter of whether a weekend in Cabo with Jessica Simpson is enough to suck the soul and talent out of Tony Romo. She's clearly a curse, worse than any thumb injury. Jerry Jones is going to have to find a way to get a "Blonde Clause" in Romo's extension.
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