Getting key players back a must for NFL playoffs
Sometimes it’s not who’s hot but who’s healthy that matters in the NFL playoffs.
The fact that teams playing in the wild-card round this weekend must win an extra game to get to the Super Bowl makes it even more difficult to avoid injuries. Yet those teams have been successful: In seven of the last eight seasons, a Super Bowl qualifier played in the wild-card round. Only 2009 was the exception.
Six times in that span, the eventual champion also came through the wild-card weekend.
On Saturday, it’s Indianapolis vs. Kansas City, then Philadelphia vs. New Orleans. On Sunday, Cincinnati welcomes San Diego, then Green Bay hosts San Francisco.
Players returning from injury will be huge in Green Bay and Kansas City.
For the Packers, the defense has been a sieve and is missing its top player, linebacker Clay Matthews, but the comebacks of passer Aaron Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb for the regular-season finale not only provided a boost to the offense but lifted Green Bay into the postseason. Rodgers, back from a broken left collarbone, and Cobb, who was out with a knee injury, combined on a fourth-down, 48-yard touchdown pass in the final moments at Chicago.
That touchdown gave the Packers the division title.
Their reward: Last season’s NFC champions, the 49ers, going to Lambeau Field. The Packers can’t count on the Lambeau mystique - they lost half their home games this season, and to the best teams they faced there, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The 49ers are one of the strongest wild-card teams in recent NFL history. They have no fear of going on the road, where they were 6-2. They beat Green Bay at Candlestick Park to start the season, and are on a six-game winning streak.
Kansas City, runner-up to Denver in the AFC West, got off to a 9-0 start, but then started getting hurt. Top linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, tackles Branden Albert and Eric Fisher — the top overall draft choice last year — and receiver Dwayne Bowe were sidelined or hobbled at various times, and the Chiefs lost five of their last seven games.
“Big-time players want to make big-time plays in big-time games,” Bowe said. “These are the games you have to show up.”
Houston missed the final five games with a dislocated right elbow and will wear a brace against Indianapolis.
Indianapolis is relatively healthy. The Colts won their last three games by a combined 78-20 and committed the fewest turnovers (14) and fewest penalties (66) in the NFL.
These teams met in Arrowhead Stadium just two weeks ago and the Colts dominated after a slow start, winning 23-7. The key for the unpredictable Colts is protecting quarterback Andrew Luck.
The one wild-card game where injuries are relatively a nonfactor is Philadelphia-New Orleans. Unless you count the Saints’ damaged pride about their inability to win on the road.
They went 8-0 at home but have been mediocre away from the Superdome, dropping their last three. They have never won a road playoff game.
Still, they feel their experience in the postseason — many of the current Saints won the 2009 championship — will provide an edge.
“We have been through a lot together,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “We know the expectation level. We know the preparation. I think there is a level of pride that comes along with that — and accountability.”
Philly is fully invested in first-year coach Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense, and an improving defense. After losing 10 in a row at home dating to last season, the Eagles won their last four, never allowing more than 21 points.
Holding New Orleans to so few points would be a good idea. The Eagles can’t wait to try.
“The great thing about where we are right now is if you win, you get to play again,” Kelly said.
The Chargers haven’t lost since Cincinnati beat them in San Diego on Dec. 1. They won their final four games to sneak into the final AFC wild card. They have concerns about 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Mathews’ ankle and receiver-punt returner Eddie Royal’s toe. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 2009 and have only six remaining players from that team.
Cincinnati, in the playoffs for a franchise-best third straight year, lost its top defensive player, tackle Geno Atkins, in midseason. Current injury worries include most of the offensive line and tight end Tyler Eifert (neck).
The Bengals were 8-0 at home, averaging 34 points in the Jungle. They’re motivated for a first playoff win since the 1990 season.