by Will Carroll
Normally in an intro, I try to be a little lighthearted and work you into it. Not today. Today, I'm going to be serious. Jim Andrews, best known as the top baseball surgeon but also very involved in football -- he's worked on Chad Pennington and Drew Brees, among others -- suffered a heart attack and is currently recovering near his Birmingham base. Andrews is a hero to many in sports medicine and I've had the chance to interview him several times. I was also honored to be invited to present at his annual ASMI Injuries Conference, the only journalist to ever do so. While I won't make next week's conference in Los Angeles, I understand just what a giant the man is in the field. In some ways, his absence has brought the sports world to a halt. Here's just another wish for Jim to get well soon, something he's helped thousands of athletes do over the years. Now, let's get to it:
Carson Palmer had one of the most heartbreaking injuries in recent history last weekend, blowing up his knee on his very first playoff pass attempt. Palmer clearly had a â€œTerrible Triadâ€? injury â€“ ACL, MCL, and meniscus â€“ from the first second Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled onto his leg and had surgery Tuesday to repair it. He'll do his rehab in California and, with Daunte Culpepper coming back from similar problems, it will be a big year to see just how far things have come with ACL surgery. While the initial reports have Palmer coming back for training camp, that's an aggressive time frame. While players have returned to function in that span, few if any have full explosion and power from the affected leg. The good news, if you can call it that, is that Palmer's not exactly a threat to run and it's his front (left) leg rather than the push-off leg. I'll be surprised if Palmer starts the season, but he'll likely earn at least some of the first year salary in his big new contract.
For a team that's coming off a bye week and a couple meaningless games where the starters got rested, the Colts still look banged up. That's not to mention their psyche, still shaky from the Dungy situation. Marvin Harrison is expected to play with a pair of hand injuries, but he's done that for much of the season and looked pretty good. Brandon Stokely is also expected to be available, despite a minor knee problem. Peyton Manning figures to have his line in place, with Ryan Diem back at RT on Sunday. The defense is a bigger question with the whole linebacking corps beat up and Corey Simon's foot remaining problematic and removing him from some of his expected plays.
The Steelers won. Bottom line, that's what matters, but as the Steelers and Redskins will show, injuries take their toll in the playoffs. Carson Palmer may have been the big story of the Steelers-Bengals game, but the Steelers took just as much of a beating. Quincy Morgan is out for the playoffs after breaking his fibula, while Jerome Bettis is expected to play despite a strained hamstring. Ben Roethlisberger continues to deal with a sore thumb, but going undefeated since injuring it makes me think that it's not bothering him much. With Marvel Smith seemingly healthy or at least blocking like he is, the Steelers offense will be about what they expected it to be. Whether that can do a better job of competing with the Colts that what they did in-season is another story, but I expect a much closer game than many expect.
The Broncos used the bye week to get healthy as much as they did to prepare for their eventual opponent. Just how healthy will go a long way in showing how much chance they have against the Patriots. On the defensive side, two â€œprobablesâ€? are actually much more likely to play â€“ Darrent Williams and Al Wilson should be on the field and only slightly limited. Williams will get more safety help, while Wilson will be playing with a smaller cast than he's been on the field with. On the offensive side, Mike Anderson appears to be full-go on a sprained ankle and Jeb Putzier, he who never sees the red zone, will be available but limited by a sore shoulder. The key pieces for the Broncos are in place, but has a team that looks so good on paper ever had less of a chance? In both conferences, the number two seed seems as weak or weaker than the wild card that just snuck in.
New England Patriots
There was a point in Saturday's game where I realized that everyone in Indianapolis had just become big Steeler fans. For most of Saturday's game, the Patriots looked like the Patriots â€“ you remember, the ones that ran roughshod through the NFL for the past few years and not like the vulnerable ones we saw for the first half of the season. Sure, they may not be fully healthy, but they have incredible depth, something that's disguised even their most serious injuries. Richard Seymour is still a step slow, Tedy Bruschi may or may not be healed from his deep calf bruise, and who knows who the Pats might list on their injury report as â€œprobable.â€? (Bruschi, as of now, isn't even listed on the report.) In the end, the Broncos know they have a buzzsaw coming to town and, with the Pats at probably their healthiest all season, this is the must-see game of the weekend.
My pal â€œBâ€? is stoked that the Bears have made it this far. It's interesting to look at this team as one of the examples of why team health â€“ or at least team health planning â€“ can be all the difference in the NFL. Two key injuries would hurt many teams, but the Bears got a bit lucky there with both injuries hitting positions of depth. There is usually one or two players on a team where the dropoff is so brutal that it would end a season and one or two more where the depth simply isn't there in the salary cap and free agent era. It'd be interesting to know if coaches and GM's game planned around those slots, keeping those players protected or reducing their risk. Brian Urlacher is the biggest example of the irreplaceable player, but how would you protect a fly-around, heat-seeker like Urlacher? So far, it hasn't been a problem.
The Bears will be essentially healthy when they hit the field on Sunday. Hunter Hillenmeyer and Mike Brown will both be back on the field after missing several end-of-season games. Cedric Benson will be in the running back mix, though will likely see no more than the nine carries he got in Minnesota. The bye week and meaningless Week 17 games gave the Bears enough time to get key players like Charles Tillman, Thomas Jones, and Muhsin Muhammad healthy. It just didn't give them enough time to get Rex Grossman a few more games of experience.
Once Steve Smith showed he was healthy in Week 1, we should have known something was coming. Broken bones heal and, as Aaron Schatz has said before, the quicker we get more injury information into our KUBIAK player projection system, the better. Smith is healthy and really, that's all they need. DeShaun Foster has played extremely well for the last few weeks despite his injured toe. Despite being listed as â€œquestionable,â€? I'd have to question why he wouldn't do what he's done the past couple weeks, Bears defense not withstanding. Injury-prone Dan Morgan barely played last week, but the defense didn't suffer. He'll be questionable as well for this weekend's game, but don't expect him to make much of an impact, whether he's on the field or the sidelines.
Here's why the bye is so important. The Redskins won their game, albeit in very ugly fashion, and came out so banged up that the Seahawks have to be thinking this is almost a second bye coming up. The brutal injury to Renaldo Wynn sums up the game for the Skins â€“ ugly. Wynn broke both the radius and ulna in his right forearm and while he should make a full recovery, the pain was pretty clear and was a tough way to start the playoffs. The rest of the team is banged up, it seems, from Shawn Springs' groin to Chris Samuels' chronic knee problems that cause him to play only in games. The most worrisome problem is the continuing breakdown of Clinton Portis. With both shoulders and his wrist hurting and likely headed for offseason surgery, every Portis carry is a danger zone. Portis is reporting losing the feeling in his arms and can't be counted on to get deep in the game. Add in Mark Brunell's immobility and you have the recipe for another offensive funk. The Skins season has to be considered a success, especially for Joe Gibbs, but the price they pay for it might be high.
Wow. I've got nothing to report here. The Seahawks are not only healthy, they're almost pristine, something unheard of in the NFL. Sure, Darrell Jackson is still something of a question mark with his season-long knee problem, but it's not like they haven't learned to live without him. If health counts for much in the NFL, the Seahawks have to be everyone's favorite now. Of course, that probably means they'll rack up the injuries this week, just to even out the pigskin karma.
Bumps and Bruises
Drew Brees is recovering well from Thursday labrum surgery, mentoned above with Dr. Andrews. He'll be ready for the season, though I'm going to watch closely to see what he's able to do prior to training camp. If he's not throwing by June, get concerned â€¦ If you only watched the Rose Bowl, would you really want Reggie Bush several picks higher than LenDale White? â€¦ One thing to keep an eye on in the next week is the rush to surgery. Players that have held off having procedures done during the season often try to get it done as quickly as possible, though some will wait a few weeks if the injury won't prevent them from taking a couple weeks of vacation. It's interesting to see which players hit the table that we barely knew were hurt â€¦ Gutsy performance by Byron Leftwich last weekend on an ankle that clearly wasn't ready.