Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
14 Jan 2010
by Will Carroll
So, I took a couple weeks off. With the fantasy season dying out in Weeks 16-17 and the starters sitting more of a story than injuries, I doubt many of you missed me, but I'm not going to abandon you either. Now that it's playoff season and more people are doing various playoff pools and panicking over their team's pain, I'm back to check in on the injuries that will change the weekend. Instead of player by player, we'll go team by team, with one exception:
Let's start with the injury that made everyone sit up and say "Maybe resting the starters isn't that bad." Wes Welker tore both his ACL and MCL -- and likely did the full triad -- but we won't know until he has surgery. He'll come back, just like most players do from ACL surgery, but is he the type of player that will come back well or as a Shell-ker? (Sorry, I've been sitting on that one.) It's impossible to say for sure, but Welker is less reliant on cuts than most believe. One NFL official I spoke with talked about how on video analysis, Welker is more about quickness than cuts. "If he gets back his burst, I think he can do the same things he did. He has that little hitch, that tunnel screen, and neither is predicated on a cut so much. He could round that screen off and not lose a thing." The comps here aren't receivers, but quarterbacks. Why? Function. A quarterback is forced to make a quick escape from a collapsing pocket in much the same way that Welker works in a screen. That makes the best comparison Philip Rivers, and his rehab worked out pretty well. The other interesting thing here is his early-season knee problem. Is this related? Was there a previous tearing or even a previous surgery, as some have suggested? It's the Pats, so we may never know, but then again, we got a whole lot of details about Tom Brady's knee last season.
The big question mark for the Ravens is Ed Reed. While Ray Lewis might still be the scary one, not having Ed Reed bird-dogging Peyton Manning's every eyeball flicker would be a more significant loss. Reed has been dealing with some fairly significant spinal issues all season, but when he plays, he's fine. Let's all hear it for painkillers, huh? For the last few weeks, he's had a hip/groin problem -- one that many are speculating might be the Alex Rodriguez/Kurt Warner-type problem -- but has played and played well despite the pain. Reed is practicing and expected to play. The Ravens do seem a bit concerned about Jared Gaither. He missed Wednesday's workout due to continuing problems with his ankle. Facing a speed rush on Saturday, Gaither's quickness is going to be paramount. The minor problems with Todd Heap (his back, this time) and Derrick Mason (hand) shouldn't come into play, though the Colts know Mason's shoulder is a big issue when he gets hit.
It would be easier to talk about who isn't hurt for the Colts. The roster and the injury report are basically the same thing for the team, but with two and a half weeks off, did they heal up enough to start a run? Peyton Manning is healthy, so there's that. Keeping him upright is going to fall to Charlie Johnson, who's been fighting through a painful turf toe for much of the last half of the season. His effectiveness is solid at the start of games, but he fades, which indicates that he can go as long as the painkillers hold on. The Colts will use Joseph Addai and a tight end to provide help, especially if the Ravens blitz Manning. Everyone on the offensive side was able to make it through practices, so Manning will have what he needs, including Reggie Wayne and Donald Brown. On the defensive side, things are a bit more questionable. Both Dwight Freeney (foot) and Robert Mathis (shoulder) practiced, but are still feeling the effects of their injuries. They'll both play and no doubt be effective, but the Colts are likely to use a rotation that gets them in more for passing situations. The Colts think Melvin Bullitt and Jerraud Powers will be available, which could be key stopping the Ravens running game. Expect eight or nine in the box with the cornerbacks daring Joe Flacco to find his receivers deep.
Vincent Jackson has had the quietest "breakout" season ever, but its a playoff performance that would get him noticed by people outside of SoCal. Instead, he has an Achilles issue that's been keeping him out of practice and that kept him from going full-on for a couple weeks. He's tall and makes extensive use of his jumping ability, so this could prove to be a major liability. This is not like Randy Moss or Antonio Gates, who use their size to maintain status as a red zone target. While Jackson is big enough to do so, scouts say he doesn't "play tall" and would be severely limited if his jumps are reduced. The only listed injury for the Chargers is punter Mike Scifres, who is expected to play without limitation.
The only major injury for the Jets is Thomas Jones. His knee has been an issue over the last half of the season, with Wednesday a normal off-day for him. That makes it tough to read, but there's no indication that this is any different than any other week, though you should be sure he practices before using him. The Jets have shown that they understand how to best use Jones despite the issue. On the defensive side, Shaun Ellis is still feeling that bruised knee and won't be full-go, but will go. The defense is already using a rotation to keep up the high work rate, so this should be a minor issue. I do want to discuss Mark Sanchez briefly, since his knee has not been a problem since his injury. At the time, I thought that a knee sprain would mean the end of his season, largely because I believed the Jets would be overprotective of "The Sanchize." I really read that wrong, but the medical staff deserves a lot of credit for how they've managed him after that situation.
Anquan Boldin was out of the first-round game and his participation this weekend is also up in the air. The lingering high ankle sprain and the cascading knee injury have kept Boldin out, but the Cardinals had been in coast mode until last week's shootout with Green Bay. Now they might need everything they can get in what could be another high-scoring game. Boldin's status will come down to Thursday's practice. If he can go, he'll play. If not, I'm sure Boldin will be doing everything he can to convince the coaching staff that he's ready, right up until kickoff. Ken Whisenhunt has played the "Dungy Rule" -- no practice, no play -- for most of the season, but in the playoffs, with such a tough matchup, he might be a bit more flexible. With both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Bryant McFadden very much in question for the game (though I expect both to play) as well as a lot of soreness with players like Will Davis from last weekend's windsprint of a game, the defense is not up to par. This shows just how important that bye week can be.
The Saints have been playing the Shanahan Shell Game all season with their running backs, so the concern over Pierre Thomas and his ribs is a bit overblown. Yes, he's sore, but he should be able to play. The bigger question is whether he will be the feature back or will they split the carries out to Mike Bell and Reggie Bush more. The latter seems to be the case, at least this week. That's never been a real problem for Drew Brees. A bigger issue is Malcolm Jenkins, who is having problems with a strained hamstring. The Saints cornerback will have to adjust or the Saints might be giving Kurt Warner something to target. How the Saints deal with this situation will go hand in hand with Anquan Boldin's availability, so this is going to be a real pivot point for a game that's more evenly matched than most think.
Of all the teams playing this weekend, the Vikings are the toughest to read right now. Despite a week off, several key players are still limited and getting a read on what they're going to do is nearly impossible. Part of the issue is that no one seems to be quite sure who has final say. Yes, Brad Childress' authority has been undermined in a lot of ways this season. On the offensive side, Steve Hutchinson is having issues with his shoulder, which may force some changes to both the running and passing schemes, while Visanthe Shiancoe, who has emerged as Brett Favre's favorite release valve, is still not over the quad strain that he played through the last couple weeks of the season. On defense, Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield are expected to play, but both will be used situationally, giving Jason Garrett a challenge.
There are two key injuries for the Cowboys this week. Marion Barber did not practice Wednesday, which was part of the treatment plan for his bursitis. I'm told that Barber's bursa sac has not burst, as some had reported, which removes the threat of infection. Remember, this is the type of injury that nearly derailed Peyton Manning early last season. The Cowboys have adjusted, using a three-man rotation similar to what the Saints use, and getting effective play out of their backs down the stretch. Barber may not put up big numbers, but I expect him to be a major portion of that rotation. On the defensive side, DeMarcus Ware has played through more injuries than I can count and played darned well. He's got a painful back injury, but it's no more likely to keep him out than the broken foot, broken wrist, or nearly devastating neck strain he had this season.
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