EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Vikings' Super Bowl Express has hit a speedbump. It might be a very big one. They've survived without a terrific corner, Antoine Winfield, for the past six weeks as he deals with a foot injury; the oppressive front seven has made up for it. But now, leading tackler and defensive captain E.J. Henderson, in the midst of a very good season, is gone after suffering the kind of broken leg you usually associate with awful car wrecks.
This is going to be tough for the Vikings. As football players, they confront their own mortality and career frailty often, and it's especially hard dealing with something as graphic and horrific as seeing the defensive leader of the team -- arguably the team's most important off-field presence -- have his leg pointing in two distinct directions, as happened on the field Sunday night in Arizona.
I asked a few of them in the Vikes' locker room Thursday how they'll deal with moving on from what they saw and felt Sunday night.
"It replays in my mind,'' said rookie Jasper Brinkley, the kid who will replace Henderson Sunday at noon, when Cedric Benson and the Bengals try to hand Minnesota a second consecutive loss.
"As big a blow as this is,'' said tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, "we've all got to have the attitude of, 'next guy up.' Our team is mentally strong. Very strong. What we're going to have to compensate for is the leadership. E.J.'s such a solid good, such a great leader. But this is what we face every time we go out there. Football's such a violent game. People ask us, 'Why do football players make so much money?' This is one of the reasons -- because you know every time we play, we risk an injury like that. As tough as the game is physically, it's outlandish mentally, knowing that can happen. But every one of us knows that. If you can't deal with it, you wouldn't be here.''
"We put our lives on the line out there,'' said Henderson's brother, special-teamer Erin Henderson. "We know on every play our lives can be changed forever. My brother's life changed forever the other night. He'll have that [surgically implanted stabilizing] metal rod in his leg for the rest of his life. He'll set off the metal detector at the airport for the rest of his life. But if you choose to play the game, you choose to deal with that.''
Tough deal. I'm not saying the Vikings won't cut it loose Sunday against Cincinnati. But what I'll be watching closely early in the game is the intensity by the Vikings, just to see if they're affected in any way by the tricks their minds may play on them.
I came away from my locker-room session in Minnesota with a lot of admiration for Erin Henderson. It can't be easy following your big brother to Maryland two years after he left a good legacy there, then following him to the Vikings and largely warming the bench; he's been inactive 11 of the first 12 games of the season as a backup linebacker and special-teamer. The other night, he said he saw what happened on the field and had to gather his emotions for a moment before rushing out to his brother's side. He wanted to help when he got there, not be a basket case.
I got emotional listening to his story. I can imagine what was roiling inside him.
"I said to Antoine Winfield on the sideline, 'I think he just broke his leg,' '' Erin Henderson said. "That's my blood out there. My brother. It took me a second, but I got it together and my brotherly instinct kicked in.
"When I got out there, I just kept saying, 'I'm right here with you, I'm here with you.' Don't know why I did this, but I'm telling him to breathe ... 'In your nose, out your mouth, in your nose, out your mouth.' He was in quite a bit of pain, so I said, 'Grab my hand. Squeeze my hand if you've got pain.' He squeezed so hard I thought he was gonna break my hand.
"In the ambulance, they hooked him up with IV fluids, and they gave him some morphine, so that helped. He understood everything that was going on. He was upset because he was starting to be back to the real E.J. after his injury last year. But this is what a great person he is. He told me now that he's gone, now they'll have to put me in. I said to him, 'That's why I love you, big bro. You're always concerned with others before yourself.'
"I was by his side for everything, except when he had to go into X-rays at the hospital. When we got to the hospital, we were there waiting for a little while in emergency, and they wheel this patient in with eight stab wounds. We're trying to talk about everything but football, and he said to me, 'Maybe my situation ain't so bad after all.'
"I am so proud of him. He's such a great guy to have in this locker room. And he plans to come back to be around the guy. He wants to come in for meetings and support the guys any way he can. He's even looking forward to rehab and coming back next year.''
E.J. Henderson will be 30 next season, trying to rebound from a devastating injury. Will he make it back? I sure hope he does. But except for specimens like Ray Lewis, 30 is a scary line of demarcation for sideline-to-sideline linebackers. In the NFL, even the best players know the real world is only a play away.
The Browns are playing hard for Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan, and the victory over Pittsburgh could make Mangini a viable candidate to retain his coaching job in 2010. There's no question the weakness of the Steelers offensive line contributed mightily to Cleveland's interesting 13-6 victory in the freezer that was northeast Ohio last night. But I can tell you owner Randy Lerner has never absolutely felt he was going to fire Mangini after this season. Lerner wants to let the season play out and make a decision along with a new football czar (which he still hopes to hire) about the smartest way to go forward.
Ryan looked more like Dick LeBeau than Dick LeBeau last night, attacking with a variety of stunting and fire-zone looks that resulted in "some early confusion,'' according to Mike Tomlin, in Steelers protection and an incredible eight sacks of Ben Roethlisberger. When you get sacks from corners, linebackers, defensive ends and defensive tackles in one game -- against the defending champions -- you've had an A-plus game, and that's what Ryan's men had last night.
Jasper Brinkley, MLB, Minnesota. The fifth-round rookie from South Carolina, replacing E.J. Henderson, is a 6-foot-1, 252-pound player whose stock dropped after a mediocre final year in college. The Vikings liked his experience in the middle (29 career starts) and traded up eight spots in the fifth round to get him.
Looking on the bright side, he should be an upgrade over the beat-up Napoleon Harris, who filled in when E.J. Henderson went down for the season four games into 2008. But Brinkley knows there's going to be a leadership void without Henderson and it's something he can't fill. "The one thing I take from him is how relentlessly he plays,'' Brinkley said Thursday. "He plays every play like it's his last.''
And the play in Arizona was Henderson's last for the year, so now it's up to the rookie plugger to back up nose man Pat Williams in defending the run against the plowhorse Bengals Sunday, and in making plays sideline to sideline. "He's smart and instinctive,'' said coach Brad Childress. He'll need to be against a pro like Carson Palmer.
1. The kind of effort Randy Moss gives. One of the Patriots' captains was slapped down by Bill Belichick on Wednesday, being sent home for arriving late to a morning meeting because of a winter storm. Moss has seemed diffident at time this year anyway. Let's see how he responds in a game that'll be tougher than everyone thinks Sunday in Foxboro -- against run-happy Carolina.
2. Eli Manning's footwork and accuracy. Manning had a game reminiscent of his lost 2004 rookie season last week against Dallas (11 of 25). He's got plantar fasciitis in one foo, and a near-stress fracture in the other. The Giants need the October Manning on Sunday night against Philly.
3. San Diego's injury bug. The Chargers' defense, already without ace noseman Jamal Williams for the year, could be without Luis Castillo, Shawne Merriman and center-fielding safety Eric Weddle Sunday at Dallas. And the man they need to solidify the offensive line, center Nick Hardwick, has had a setback from his September ankle injury and will miss a couple more weeks at least. I think Dallas will run early and often.
4. The renaissance of Alex Smith. Coming off the first 300-yard passing day of his career, Smith will make Monday night's home game with Arizona interesting for more than just a last 49ers playoff gasp. If he continues to complete 62 percent of his throws with a 2-to-1 TD-to-pick ratio, he'll certainly be in contention for San Fran's quarterback job in 2010.
5. Adrian Peterson's comeback ability. He told me Thursday he feels great physically. "Nothing wrong,'' Peterson said with a smile. He has to be a better, quicker and harder runner against Cincinnati than he was last week in his 13-carry, 19-yard performance in Arizona. With ace run-stuffer Domata Peko (knee) out for Cincinnati and the Bengals sure to send a variety of blitzes at Brett Favre, Peterson needs one of those classic 24-carry, 161-yard days.
6. 16-0speak. By the end of the weekend, particularly if the Colts defeat Denver and the Saints handle Atlanta (neither locks, by the way), we'll all be tired of why Sean Payton's going for it and why Jim Caldwell isn't.
7. The Hall of Fame finalist balloting of my peers. This is the weekend the 44 members have to finalize their cutdown votes from 25 semifinalists to 15 finalists. Ballots are due at the hall next week. So I've failed on my previous pleas for Ron Wolf and Joe Klecko. Any of you guys/gals reading this, could I politic for Rickey Jackson and Steve Tasker to make it to the finals? Please?
8. The Cowboys and December. It's only Dec. 11, and we're sick to death of the theories about why the Cowboys haven't had a winning December in 13 years, and why Tony Romo is 5-9 in the Christmas month. But that doesn't mean 11 hours of pre-game shows this weekend won't beat us over the head with it.
9. The Jags' empty promise. They can't sell out their home field for a game with an in-state rival, but the Jaguars, hosting feisty Miami, could finish the weekend in commanding position for a wild-card berth by improving to 8-5.
10. The MVP picture to get clearer. Will it continue to be a three-horse race -- Manning, Brees, Favre? Or can Philip Rivers or Aaron Rodgers elbow into the top three? With the quality of quarterback play, it's going to be very hard for a lights-out defender (Elvis Dumervil, Charles Woodson, Darrelle Revis) or Chris Johnson to contend.