Prescott, Cowboys headline teams winning minus injured stars
FRISCO, Texas (AP) Dak Prescott's job was to win without Tony Romo when the Dallas Cowboys lost their 10-year starting quarterback to a preseason back injury after going 1-11 with him sidelined last season.
Prescott was so good, Romo never got his job back.
The Cowboys won 11 straight games and secured the top seed in the NFC with rookie sensations Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott , along with one of the NFL's best offensive lines, highlighting a short list of teams that thrived or at least survived without injured stars in 2016.
''This is one of the finest seasons you've seen as a rookie quarterback probably in the history of the NFL,'' 14th-year Dallas tight end Jason Witten said. ''It would be tough to argue that statement and he deserves a lot of credit for that, his ability to come in and understand the situation he had, embrace that challenge and play really good football.''
The former Mississippi State standout was drafted in the fourth round with the idea that he would be No. 3 behind Romo and Kellen Moore, and perhaps be the quarterback of the future. It quickly became the present when Moore broke an ankle in practice at training camp and Romo broke a bone in his back in the third preseason game against Seattle.
Prescott responded by breaking every Dallas rookie quarterback record, many by a wide margin.
The widest was wins. He has 13, tied with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger for the most in NFL history for a rookie going into the regular-season finale at Philadelphia. The previous club mark was three by Quincy Carter in 2001.
In high school and college, Prescott replaced an injured starter and kept the job.
''Here he is in the NFL and he's filling in for one of the all-time Cowboy greats that had a bad-luck injury to start the season, and he's gone out and won,'' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. ''I think he just puts it in his world of that's what you're supposed to do.''
New England was well on its way to a playoff spot when three-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski had season-ending back surgery in early December. But the Patriots kept winning. They are 4-0 without him and control the race for the top seed in the AFC going into the finale at Miami.
Tom Brady also lost a trusted receiver in Danny Amendola to an ankle injury on Dec. 4. With former Dallas tight end Martellus Bennett filling in for Gronkowski, and veteran Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell doing the same at receiver, the Patriots keep rolling.
Bennett has 52 catches for 668 yards and six touchdowns.
''He's done a great job and he's been out there every week to compete,'' Brady said. ''He's a very tough guy. When you see him, he's 6-foot-7, 280, I mean, he doesn't back down from anybody.''
Hogan and Mitchell have combined for more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, four apiece.
''It says a lot for a rookie to be playing his best in December,'' Brady said of Mitchell. ''It speaks to what he's all about, his mindset, his character, his determination.''
Other notable injuries and their effects on those teams:
WINNING WITHOUT WATT: The Houston Texans lost three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt to a back injury after just three games. But they moved 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from outside linebacker to defensive end to fill the hole and made the playoffs for the second straight season.
Clowney has thrived in a breakout season with a career-high six sacks and 16 tackles for losses, fourth in the NFL entering the final weekend. Houston's defense has propped up an offense that struggled under expensive free agent Brock Osweiler, who was benched.
DOUBLE WHAMMY: Minnesota reached 5-0 despite the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a devastating left knee injury in a noncontact drill during preseason practice, and a right knee injury to running back Adrian Peterson in Week 2. But the Vikings couldn't sustain it even though Sam Bradford filled in well for Bridgewater following a trade.
An offensive line that lost several starters couldn't protect Bradford or create much room for Peterson's replacements, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. The Vikings had already faded by the time Peterson returned Dec. 18 against Indianapolis, and they lost again.
''I think it was a huge lift,'' Bradford said after the Indy game. ''We just didn't do enough to get him going and give ourselves an opportunity to get into a rhythm with him in the game.''
AN EVEN 20: San Diego has 20 players on injured reserve and is on its way to a second straight last-place finish in the AFC West in large part because backups haven't played well in place of injured starters.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen was hurt in the opener, running back Danny Woodhead in the second game, and cornerback Jason Verrett, a Pro Bowler last year, played only four games.
Other players of note who've hit IR include nose tackle Brandon Mebane, outside linebacker Jerry Attaouchu, inside linebacker Manti Te'o and cornerback Brandon Flowers. Wideout Stevie Johnson was hurt during training camp.
SUPER LETDOWN: Defending NFC champion Carolina was doomed by a poor start, and hopes to recover took a big blow when three-time All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly sustained a concussion in a win over New Orleans on Nov. 17. The Panthers were 2-3 without him, and he was ruled out of the finale against Tampa Bay with Carolina out of playoff contention.
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