Injured Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons.
Injuries in the NFL can be devastating to a team's Super Bowl aspirations. As the playoffs wear on, the competition gets tougher and the difference between winning and losing can be infinitesimal. A missed block here, a bad pass there and a team can go from Super Bowl contenders to spectators in a matter of 60 minutes. It's imperative that every team in the playoffs has as many healthy players on the field as possible, or else they will risk ending their 2012 campaigns earlier than desired.
However, it's an idealistic notion to expect every team to be healthy this weekend. In fact, there's not a single player out there that can accurately state that his body is 100 percent healthy heading into this weekend's divisional round. The NFL is a ruthless, physically demanding league that forces its participants to endure a grueling 16 game schedule. Guys are going to get banged up in the process.
Let's take a look at seven injured players whose health will greatly effect the overall performance of their respective teams, and in turn help determine who advances to the conference championship round.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons.
Officially, the status for Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons is undetermined for Sunday's road matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. However, NFL.com reported yesterday that the Seahawks think Clemons has torn his ACL and will miss the rest of the season. For a defense that has relied on the pass rush to vault themselves into the upper echelon of NFL teams, Clemons' absence may prove to be lethal to the Seahawks upset hopes.
Although Clemons bounced around the league for the first five years of his career, he found a home in Seattle in 2010. In three seasons with the team, Clemons has 33.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 13 passes defended and has not missed a single game. He is an integral part of what the Seahawks do on defense and he will not be easy to replace 17 games into the season.
The onus is going to fall on Bruce Irvin and even Gregg Scruggs to step up on Sunday. Furthermore, the secondary is going to have to play effectively in coverage for longer than they are used to.
Seattle is not going to replace the production of Chris Clemons this weekend, but it's important that they don't let his absence ruin their season. This is still a talented defense with the ability to play with anyone in the league, it's just a matter of getting over the mental hurdle of not having their star defender in the lineup.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
The Baltimore Ravens are heading on the road to play the Denver Broncos this weekend after a 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. It was an emotional win for the team, as it was Ray Lewis' final game at M&T Bank Stadium. The team delivered a convincing victory; however, Baltimore's vaunted defense looks a little banged right now.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter, while Terrell Suggs reported pain in his repaired Achilles tendon. After the game, Suggs gave a relatively colorful description of his injury.
"My Achilles started acting up, and it felt pretty bad, but I was like, '(Expletive) that,' " Suggs said. "I wasn't going to let a repaired tendon steal our glory. We had work to do. We're trying to win a championship. And we had to make sure we did this for (Ray Lewis)."
With Ray Lewis only having played one game since Week 6, and two of the other three other starting linebackers reporting injuries, Baltimore suddenly has some holes to fill in their historically impenetrable defense.
If Lewis, Suggs and Ellerbe are even a step slow against the Broncos, Peyton Manning is going to have a field day on the Ravens' defense. Manning's ability to exploit opponents at the line of scrimmage is lethal enough, but doing it with injury plagued linebackers on the field will make him nearly impossible to defend. Unless the Ravens' secondary steps up big time, the Baltimore could be in for a long day this weekend.
After missing the Green Bay Packers Week 17 matchup, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb each played in the Packers victory over the Minnesota Vikings last Saturday. However, they combined for just four catches and 58 receiving yards. That's not good enough if Green Bay expects to beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road this weekend.
Part of the issue could have been just regaining timing with Aaron Rodgers. Furthermore, with Greg Jennings finally healthy, Aaron Rodgers can spread the ball around more now that he has all his weapons back on the field. Spreading the ball around will be a key aspect to the Packers game plan against the 49ers' staunch defense.
However, Nelson and Cobb must find a way to vault themselves into the top producers on Green Bay's offense this weekend. Both are deep threats with the ability to stretch San Francisco's defense, which could help diversify the play calls and audibles at the line of scrimmage for the Packers.
If San Francisco can not make Green Bay's offense one dimensional, then defending Aaron Rodgers is nearly impossible. Nelson and Cobb will be key players in making that possible.
Green Bay Packers safety Charles Woodson.
Charles Woodson returned to action against the Vikings last weekend after missing the final nine games of 2012 with a broken collarbone. Although the injury itself is not going to physically hinder his play, this will be the first time in nearly two months that Woodson will have to rebound after playing a get ready for a new opponent the next weekend.
Woodson looked great against the Vikings, as he came away with six tackles on the game. However, this weekend will tell if the 36 year old veteran is in football shape or not. It's one thing to come out fast after not playing since Week 7, but it's entirely different to come out the same way the next game. Woodson is a veteran, so this shouldn't be an issue, but his fitness could be something to keep an eye on.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Obviously, Rob Gronkowski is an incredible talent at tight end for the New England Patriots. He's one of two or three players at his position that is capable of taking over a game by himself. His broken arm against Colts in Week 11 removed him from action until Week 17, when he scored against the Miami Dolphins.
Gronkowski played on a limited snap count in the Pats last game, but he looked to be in good physical shape and capable of stretching the field. He's going to to be tested against a physical Houston Texans secondary, but his biggest challenge will be mental rather than physical. He's had enough time to heal, but can he get himself back into sync with Tom Brady after such a long layoff.
Furthermore, this is the first quality defense Gronk will face since Week 6 against Seattle. It remains to be seen how he responds, but don't expect the Pats star tight end to be physically hampered in this matchup.