Wild Card weekend is in the rear view mirror, with all four road teams emerging victorious on the opening weekend of the NFL Playoffs. One game was a blowout, with the Chiefs destroying the Texans. Two games were coin flips that came down to last second field goals, with the Steelers making their field goal while the Vikings missed theirs, allowing Seattle to survive and advance. And the fourth game was a close contest that turned into a blowout by the end of the fourth quarter thanks to a performance from Green Bay that was as good as anything that we’ve seen from the Packers since October.
The mainstream media will focus on the quarterbacks and the head coaches, because that’s what the mainstream media does. In the mainstream world, Andy Reid; noted for a decade worth of playoff failures in Philadelphia, is now a genius because his team is on an 11-game winning streak. Aaron Rodgers, off the worst statistical season of his career, is now back to his elite self; thanks to one playoff win against a banged up defense.
Serious bettors know one thing about the NFL Playoffs – health matters! Do the Chiefs win by 30 at Houston if Brian Hoyer has his left tackle, Duane Brown, protecting him? Do the Steelers execute their game winning drive in the final minute if it was Landry Jones behind center instead of Ben Roethlisberger? Does Aaron Rodgers rally the Packers from behind if the Redskins secondary was healthy? Minnesota was missing key starters on all three units of their defense in their regular season meeting with Seattle, allowing 38 points and 433 yards as a result. In the playoff rematch, the Vikings defense was healthy again and the Seahawks were held to 10 points – all in the fourth quarter – and 226 total yards.
Injuries matter, and they matter the most here in January when teams stack up against other elite competitors. This year’s Super Bowl champion is every bit as likely to be determined by which top notch contender is healthy enough to execute their gameplan effectively over the next few weekends as any other factor. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at the injury situation for each of the eight teams still standing.
The Green Bay Packers suffered a couple of key injuries on Sunday, but, in general, they are getting healthier. Key offensive lineman Brian Bulaga was healthy enough to go against Washington, and his counterpart at the other tackle spot, David Bakhtiari could be back on the field this Sunday at Arizona. Both guys missed the Week 16 matchup against the Cardinals and Aaron Rodgers took eight sacks as a result!
The Packers won on Sunday without starting CB Sam Shields, still in concussion protocol. There’s a decent chance Shields could be back on the field this week. But WR Davante Adams went down with a knee injury on Sunday. Although he avoided surgery, his status for Saturday’s game at Arizona is very questionable, potentially leaving Rodgers without one of his better targets for the rematch against the Cards.
The Arizona Cardinals lost pro bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu following that Week 16 win over Green Bay, and his absence was felt immediately – they got picked apart by Russell Wilson in a blowout loss the following week. But other than the Mathieu injury, Bruce Arians squad is fairly healthy, with LB Markus Golden and DR Josh Mauro both expected back this week. Most importantly, they didn’t get riddled with key injuries down the stretch; in good shape heading into their playoff opener.
The New England Patriots got last weekend off, and they needed it. No other playoff team came close to suffering the rash of injuries that the Pats have suffered, but a whole host of injured Patriots could be back on the field next Saturday.
New England will get back WR Danny Amendola following a nine week absence. LB Donta’ Hightower is expected to suit up, as is key pass rusher Chandler Jones and elite offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer. All four guys are what I would call ‘impact players’, and their return to the field makes the Pats a much, much better team than the one that went 2-4 to close out the regular season.
The Kansas City Chiefs have injuries to their top three pass rushers, bad news against Tom Brady! Tama Hali, Justin Houston and Dee Ford are all ailing, but all three are likely to suit up on Saturday. But their top deep threat, WR Jeremy Maclin, suffered a high ankle sprain in the win over Houston. Even if Maclin suits up in Foxboro, he’s not likely to be his explosive self. KC also lost starting offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to a concussion, joining starting center Mitch Morse in concussion protocol moving forward. If that duo doesn’t suit up this weekend, it’s going to have a major effect on Kansas City’s chances.
The Carolina Panthers suffered two major late season injuries. The Panthers lost two of their top three cornerbacks to season enders, with Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere going down. That being said, this team was as healthy as it gets at the NFL level for a good portion of the season, and just about everyone who sat Week 17 for resting purposes should suit up on Sunday.
The Seattle Seahawks late season resurgence has come entirely without RB Marshawn Lynch on the field. They went 3-4 SU in the seven games that Lynch was healthy enough to play in. I don’t think he moves the needle one iota – not even worth a half point to the spread, or to the eventual result. But Lynch is a superstar and his status moving forward is likely to affect the pointspread, at least a little bit, as he tries to recover from an abdominal injury that has kept him sidelined for the last two months.
That being said, the Seahawks came out of Sunday’s game at Minnesota virtually unscathed. The only new player on their injury report Monday morning was the punter, Jon Ryan, who had his nose bloodied but was still fine to finish the game against the Vikings. I’d be very surprised if Ryan wasn’t good to go at Carolina.
The Pittsburgh Steelers injury concerns are very real as they get ready for the Broncos. Ben Roethlisberger’s got a bum shoulder -- one notable report listed it as a separated shoulder -- but early reports indicate that he’s likely to suit up. WR Antonio Brown needs to go through concussion protocol before he’ll be allowed to play, although early week signs look good in that regard. And even with cluster injuries at running back, it was a non-factor on Sunday, with Jordan Todman and Fitz Toussaint filling the void effectively. That being said, other than the skill position question marks, Pittsburgh is at near full health in the trenches (center Maurkice Pouncey has been out since October) and on the defensive side of the football.
Of course, the Denver Broncos have a QB injury question mark of their own, with Peyton Manning having only nine pass attempts under his belt since his injury/benching in Week 10 against the Chiefs. According to the latest practice report coming out of Colorado, head coach Gary Kubiak was confident that his QB was good to go. “He looks really fresh out there and is throwing the ball well.”
Denver got starting cornerback Aqib Talib and starting tight end Owen Daniels back in practice last week, and LB Brandon Marshall should be good to go by Sunday. Kubiak was very positive about the injury situation heading into their game against the Steelers: "We’ve gotten some guys freshened up and in a good frame of mind. It looks like we’re going to be pretty close maybe to Wednesday being about as close to where we started back four months ago. That’s a good thing.”
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