Injuries an obstacle, not a death knell for NFL playoff teams
It's been a long season, and now that we have four real playoff games coming up this weekend, what do they have left and how much will injuries affect playoff teams? These are questions that come up every year and the answers often surprise people. In reality, injuries don't tend to be a major factor in deciding who'll win and lose. There are a couple of reasons for that and one notable exception.
First, teams tend to be pretty healthy if they've made it into the playoffs. Some of that is "luck" and some of that is a real skill that teams can exhibit from year to year, something I credit to the medical staffs. Some of it is team construction -- player durability is predictable year over year within a framework that accepts traumatic injuries are essentially random.
Second, teams that have suffered significant injuries have adjusted for them. The Patriots of a few years back had rallied around Matt Cassel, who's gone on to have a nice year in Kansas City. This year, we've seen the Packers adjust for the early loss of Ryan Grant, the Colts adjust for injuries all over the field, and Pittsburgh adjusting for the early season absence of Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger's time off wasn't injury, but teams do have to deal with suspensions in much the same way, so it can be instructive. There is a slight difference in the playoffs, where the loss of talent can be exposed more than during the regular season. A team is facing a team that is, in theory, just as talented, something that can expose a lack of talent the way that can't be done in a normal week. While the "any given Sunday" theory should work against this, the data doesn't agree.
The major exception to this is when an injury either just occurred or happens in the game. Carson Palmer's knee injury is an example of the latter. The Saints loss of most of their running game could end up one of these issues, as could the status of Matt Hasselbeck for Seattle. Both these situations are going to change the complexions of their respective games.
Speaking of the games, let's look at each of them:
The Colts have overcome injury after injury this season, largely because they've kept No. 18 healthy. Perhaps no team in the history of the game has been carried as much by one player, though there's an argument that says Tom Brady could do the same. Brady hasn't had the injuries, but the talent surrounding him offensively is on par with what the Colts have. The Colts have shown more of a commitment to the run, which is built off their ability to stop the blitz. Rex Ryan will be sending a lot of those, plus confusion, in hopes of finally beating Manning. Expect to see a lot of Joseph Addai early as the Colts think his shoulder is as healthy as it's going to get. He'll both run and block, something Donald Brown could never establish. The WRs are going to be the group he's had most of the season, so that's not new. The offensive line will get tested, especially up the middle, where Jeff Saturday has been a half-step slow after early season knee surgery, and on the left, where Charlie Johnson is toughing out a multitude of conditions. The Jets will go with their "11 Angry Men" set a lot and could look to overload areas to see how the Colts line adjusts.
The Jets, for their part, are relatively healthy. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie were rested last week and should be full-go, but there's question at safety. Both Eric Smith and James Ihidegbo are questionable and that position will be tested early, meaning Jacob Tamme and Blair White vertically and trying to find seams. The Jets expect everyone ready to go offensively, including Santonio Holmes.
The Ravens might be the most dangerous five seed in playoff history. The team is relatively healthy, with only some defensive backfield questions. They have a solid offense, an ace RB and playoff experience. Ed Reed showed last week that even at less than 100 percent, he's still a ballhawk. The rest of their dings are minor, like Haloti Ngata's thigh bruise.
The Chiefs got to this point in large part due to great team health. While Dwayne Bowe and a few others have been dealing with a virus, all are expected to play. Matt Cassel is healthy after his appendectomy, Dexter McCluster has shown he's ready to go and the defense is solid. The Chiefs have plenty of questions they'll have to answer in this game, but health isn't one of them.
Modern sports medicine is pretty amazing. Marques Colston practiced fully on Wednesday and is expected to start this weekend, less than two weeks after having his knee scoped. An appendix is one thing, but a knee? This is pretty amazing stuff, you have to admit. Colston may be back, but the question will be how effective he is. Don't expect him to be near 100 percent. The tests will be cutting and stopping, so look for lots of routes near the sidelines, deep runs and cuts that go to his right. The Saints also have severe depth issues at RB. With Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas on IR, they're left with Reggie Bush and ... well, Reggie Bush. Bush is a role player, but the options besides him are Julius Jones and DeShawn Wynn. Unlike when Bush was out, Drew Brees can't replicate the run with short passes, but that's the most likely scenario if Bush can't show some ability to run inside early. The backup plan will likely be throwing over the middle to David Thomas and Jeremy Shockey, both of whom should be ready to go, though Jimmy Graham is a bit more iffy.
For the Seahawks, the focus is on Matt Hasselbeck. Early signs are good that he's ready to return with him not even listed on the Seahawks' first OIR. The Saints will try to get to him early in order to test how he'll adjust and whether he can hold up to some hits. The Seahawks are otherwise healthy, which should be enough to make this game interesting, if not close.
Michael Vick looks healthy this week, with the rest last week appearing the smart play. The Packers might have the perfect guy to spy him in Clay Matthews and the Packers will take every opportunity to put a hit on Vick and see how much he can take. Vick's going to have to be smart and limit those opportunities. The Eagles should have everyone else available, including DeSean Jackson and Asante Samuel. The only question mark is Stewart Bradley, who's ability to get to "questionable" after a devastating dislocated elbow is pretty astounding.
The Packers' only real questions are in the defensive backfield, but the rest they got last week should get Charles Woodson, Atari Bigby and LB Frank Zombo back on the field. Offensively, the team is healthy.