5 NFL Injuries Sure to Hurt Teams in the Playoffs
The fact that many of the 2012 playoff-bound NFL teams are relatively injury-free is not a coincidence, as injuries to key players can turn an elite squad into a pushover.
However, that is not to say this year's postseason clubs are entirely healthy.
It is also important to remember that active players with lingering injuries can be limited, as well.
Using criteria such as available and effective backups, injuries at key skill positions and severity of the injury in question, the following players' injuries will certainly hurt their teams' Super Bowl aspirations, ranked in order from least to most concerning.
Honorable Mention: Cincinnati Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis' Hamstring
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, running back for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
The Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, 6th seed in AFC) had nothing to play for in Week 17, and they removed several starters from the game early on Sunday.
However, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis did not take the field even once.
According to the Associated Press, Green-Ellis injured a hamstring during warm-ups, and the Bengals held him from play.
It is very possible, likely even, that the Bengals simply played it safe with their running back in a meaningless game.
Nevertheless, keep an eye on "The Law Firm" this weekend. Hamstring injuries can be extremely finicky.
Just ask Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
5. Green Bay Packers WR Jordy Nelson's Hamstring
Jordy Nelson, wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers.
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Speaking of Jordy Nelson, whether he is active or not, he continues to battle a case of the "hamstrings."
Nelson, wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers (11-5, 3rd seed in NFC), first popped up on the official NFL inactive list in Week 8 due to his hamstring injury, and it continues to plague him even now.
Nelson played in Week 17 after sitting out Weeks 14, 15 and 16 due to a re-aggravation of the injury in Week 13.
But as Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated expertly noted on Monday, Nelson did not look quite the same. Carroll writes:
On his long TD, (Nelson) was taking shorter strides on the affected side. He was still fast enough to outrun the defenders. He had a minor knee injury during the game, but there was no information at this time on specifics. Nelson has been injury-prone all season, but his performance on Sunday was enough to make me think he’ll be close to this level next week.
For now, Nelson appears healthy enough to play. However, given his history, the injury merits attention throughout the Packers' playoff run.
4. New England Patriots DE Rob Ninkovich's Hip
Rob Ninkovich, defensive end for the New England Patriots.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
New England Patriots (12-4, 2nd seed in AFC) defensive end Rob Ninkovich went down on Sunday, but what really scared the Patriots and their fans was how long it took him to leave the field. Ninkovich required assistance to walk to the locker room, and he took very, very small steps while doing so.
However, it seems like the injury looked worse than it actually is.
Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported on Monday that Ninkovich strained some hip muscles but avoided serious injury.
In other words, speculation suggests that he likely suffered only a grade-one strain—an over-stretch of the muscle but no tear.
A grade-two (partial tear) or grade-three (complete tear) strain would likely require Ninkovich to miss time, but for now, it looks like he will be available for the Patriots' first playoff game.
Regardless, muscle strains can require significant time to fully heal and produce significant pain when the injured muscle is used.
Though it sounds like Ninkovich's prospects to play are quite good, don't be surprised if it seems like he is missing a step or two in the divisional round.
3. Atlanta Falcons DE John Abraham's Ankle
John Abraham, defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Someone must play during Week 17 games, even if they have no significance.
Though it is easy to use 20-20 hindsight to blame the Atlanta Falcons (13-3, 1st seed in NFC) for the ankle injury to their defensive end John Abraham, suffered in a meaningless game, they may have lucked out.
According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, coach Mike Smith believes Abraham's injury is minor.
However, details remain scarce. Even if an MRI rules out a significant ankle sprain (grade-two or grade-three), any injury to ankle ligaments significantly weakens them until they fully heal.
The Falcons do not play their first playoff game for two weeks, so Abraham will have added time to recover.
Nevertheless, the defensive front for the Falcons loses quite a bit of its luster if Abraham is on the sidelines or limited in any way.
2. San Francisco 49ers DE Justin Smith's Triceps
Justin Smith, defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers.
David Welker/Getty Images
No game spoke more volumes about San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1, 2nd seed in NFC) defensive end Justin Smith' value than their Week 16 destruction at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks (11-5, 5th seed in NFC).
Smith reportedly wants to play through the injury.
The 49ers certainly hope he can.
Russell Wilson and company completely annihilated the 49ers without Smith on the field, making them look foolish in the process. The 49ers simply had no answer for the mobile Wilson and his offensive schemes.
Playing through a triceps injury can be immensely painful, but as long as the muscle is not completely torn—a grade-three strain that would likely require surgery—Smith can try to play.
The triceps muscle is responsible for straightening the arm, and each time Smith does so, he will likely experience pain. If he can tolerate that pain, he may still be effective despite the injury.
That remains to be seen.
1. Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III's Knee
Robert Griffin III, quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
One of the most magical rookie seasons in NFL history almost ended early when Robert Griffin III, quarterback for the Washington Redskins (10-6, 4th seed in NFC), went down with a gruesome knee injury.
Miraculously, RGIII suffered only a grade-one lateral collateral ligament (LCL) sprain on the play.
In other words, his LCL, one of the four main ligaments that stabilize the knee, did not tear and merely over-stretched.
RGIII missed just one week due to the injury and started Week 16 and 17, looking great all the while.
However, as countless announcers, reporters and news anchors have noticed, the RGIII of today looks different from the RGIII of earlier this season.
Is he slower? Maybe. Can he not cut as well? Possibly.
Perhaps he is more tentative.
One thing is for sure—he is not the same. It is a safe bet that his knee ligament is both still hurting and likely still weaker than normal.
Whatever it is exactly, physical or psychological, RGIII cannot afford to miss a beat this postseason.
His first week back, he rushed only twice for four yards. His second, he threw for only 100.
Fortunately, the lowly Eagles stood no chance Week 16, and Alfred Morris' 200 yards took the pressure off of RGIII in Week 17.
However, the offense runs through him, and in the playoffs, one single misstep can decide a game.
Will such a misstep due to RGIII's knee end the Redskins' season?
Time will tell.
Dave Siebert is a medical/injury Featured Columnist who will graduate from medical school in June 2013. He plans to specialize in both Family Medicine and Primary Care (non-operative) Sports Medicine, and injury information discussed above is based on his own knowledge.