Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Injuries Are Piling Up: How It Shapes the Playoff Picture

"Hot and Healthy." Those two words have replaced the phrases "best team," and "most talented" when it comes to who often wins the Super Bowl.

The NFL presents its players with a very long season is you really think about. To get to the Super Bowl a team usually needs to play at least 18 games; in the 00's a lot of team have had to play 19 just to get there; changing the strategy from "win all your games from September to December and you'll be fine in January" to "make sure these guys are given every sort of medication there is to make sure they can play on Sunday."

The 2005 season was really where this strategy all began; In October the Chicago White Sox won the World Series after having a miserable final stretch of the regular season. The White Sox were able to stay healthy, and get hot at the right time though, which lead them to a Championship.

Meanwhile in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts were off to an epic 13-0 start, while the Steelers would need to win their next three games just to get into the playoffs. After a loss to the San Diego Chargers in week 15, the Colts decided to coast through the rest of the season; benching a majority of their starters; essentially giving their key players a month off before their next important game.

The Steelers on the other hand got hot. They won the last three games of the season by a combined point differential of +70, and went into Cincinnati and beat them up Wild Card Weekend. On January 15, 2006 the Steelers would head to Indianapolis in a game that would change coaching strategy for the rest of the decade.

The game began with the fresh but out-of-sync Colts struggling to put a drive together while the Steelers were able to put up a quick 14. The first half would end with a 14-3 score in favor of Pittsburgh.

In the third quarter the Steelers put together what looked like a crippling drive to make the score 21-3 in favor of Pittsburgh. In the fourth quarter Indianapolis's' offense would finally find it's rhythm, putting up 15 unanswered points, but would fall a Mike Vanderjagt missed field goal away from advancing in the playoffs.

The fourth quarter of that game proved who the "best team" and the "most talented team" was that day, but the "hot and healthy" team went on to win.

On the other hand, Bill Belichick's 2007 Patriots grinded, and grinded, and grinded down the stretch to a perfect 16-0 record, and grinded through two tough playoff games to finish the season 18-0, before meeting the New York Giants, who were hotter, healthier, and younger than the Patriots. Without a doubt the Patriots were "more talented" and the "better team," but the wear and tear of the 18 game schedule put it's toll on New England's ancient defense and offensive lines. In the fourth quarter, the Giants young offense exposed the exhaustion of New England's defense and picked up a touchdown. In the following drive New England's offensive line totally collapsed letting Brady hit the ground on four straight plays. The Giants would be named Super Bowl XLII champions.

So what teams lurking around right now are healthy?

Early in the season the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers all picked up injuries that the media and fans viewed as "crippling." Since then the Colts and Steelers have gotten significantly healthier, while all three have continued to bench key players each week. Though these are probably the three teams in the NFL that need to be healthy the least to win the Super Bowl, all three are looking to be in good shape come January; it's just a matter of getting hot.

In the NFC the Saints are relatively very healthy; especially when you consider many of their key players (Shockey, Colston, Bush, Vilma, even Brees, have had injury problems in the past). With a roster loaded with that many "injury prone" players though, you have to wonder how much longer this could last.

For the second season in a row the New York Giants are feeling the wrath of their previous season. Thus far Eli Manning and Justin Tuck, the leaders on each side of the ball, have suffered injuries that could nag them for the duration of the season. Meanwhile the Dallas Cowboys have stayed healthy and are just getting hot. Despite a week 1 loss at home to the Giants, the Cowboys are currently in first place in their division while the Giants are in third. The Eagles, as usual, are winning despite key injuries, but this team should be healthy come January.

In 2008 Brett Favre had the New York Jets in similar shape to what he has the Minnesota Vikings currently are. At 8-3, Jets fans were ready to start booking their trips to the Super Bowl, unfortunately Favre's arm fell off in the later months of the season. Will that happen this year? For one, Favre is asked to do a lot less in Minnesota than he is in New York, and playing in a dome is a lot easier than playing in the Meadowlands. But you have to wonder if Favre has nine more games in him this season? It may be time to get him on a "pitch count" if the Vikings want to win when it matters. Same goes for Adrian Peterson.

Perhaps this seasons "hot and healthy" team to watch will be last years "hot and healthy" team; the Arizona Cardinals. Right now the Cardinals have been the poster children for inconsistency; just as they were in 2008. Chances are this team will be in the playoffs due to a weak division, and if they want to get back to the Super Bowl they're going to have to be "hotter and healthier" than everyone else.

Finally you have the San Diego Chargers who last year were able to get hot enough, but not healthy enough, to finally make the elusive run the Super Bowl. This season the Chargers are looking relatively healthy, but they've yet to get hot. It's going to be tough for this team come playoff time (if they make it) to advance, given they likely won't have the luxury of playing any games in San Diego's nice weather; thus making their health the greatest factor in finally advancing.

So when you line up the contenders (sorry Denver) this January look at who is healthiest, and then watch for them to get hot. Once you see any signs of heat rising, that's the team to watch.

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