For both players and teams, the NFL regular season is a war of attrition.
While it is important to have the best talent and game plan week in and week out, teams must also account for the unpredictability of injuries. They impact every squad and can occur on any given play.
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, injuries to key players have become even more devastating. Some have made it this far without losing key players. Teams like Carolina, Kansas City and San Francisco have not seen many debilitating injuries and have winning records to show for it. Others, however, have not been so lucky.
We'll start with the likely playoff contenders. Denver and Seattle have already earned playoff spots, but still need wins to help secure home-field advantage. Facing Houston and Arizona, respectively, in Week 16, odds are that both will win. But the long-term effects of these injuries are a concern and could hurt them during the postseason.
In Denver, all eyes are on wide receiver Wes Welker, who recently suffered his second concussion in four weeks. It's not the first major loss for the Broncos on offense—they lost offensive tackle Ryan Clady in Week 2—but it's still a big one.
There may not be a more reliable slot receiver in the league than Welker. Though he's only averaged 10.7 yards per catch this season, those quick slants and dump-offs to him are a great way to counter blitz pressure. When you couple a great underneath threat like Welker with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker out wide, it really opens up the Broncos offense. Yes, Peyton Manning's QBR is actually higher without Welker on the field, losing a player who is second on the team in touchdown catches and tied for second in receptions is never good for an offense.
The expectation, however, is that Welker will be ready to go in the second round of the playoffs. And with teams like Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Miami as possible opponents — all of which can effectively generate pressure — Manning will need his reliable hot read on the field as much as possible.
Seattle's woes are occurring on the defensive side of the ball. It began with cornerback Brandon Browner, who suffered a groin injury against Atlanta in Week 10. He hasn't played in a game since and is now facing an indefinite suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The Seahawks secondary is widely regarded as the best in the NFL. The loss of Brandon Browner does not remove them from this distinction, but it is a relative weak spot in their secondary.
But the loss that may hurt them more is that of linebacker K.J. Wright, who suffered a foot injury during Week 14 against San Francisco. Before the injury, Wright seemed to be coming into his own, grading out at plus-8.6 in the three games prior to the Niners game, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Wright will be missed most in pass coverage, where he received most of his high PFF grade from. His replacement, Malcolm Smith, has performed well as a backup but had his struggles last week against the Giants.
These losses are magnified when you look at Seattle's offense as of late. While the defense is still playing well at the moment, the offense has struggled to put up points against some of the NFC's best defenses, scoring 12 points against Carolina to start the season and 17 points against San Francisco two weeks ago. Both of those were road games for Seattle, but today's 17-10 loss to Arizona was particularly alarming as the Cardinals came into CenturyLink Field and won. Playoff teams will certainly use the Cardinals as the blueprint for how to beat the Seahawks at home.
The offense could certainly use another playmaker like Percy Harvin. The all-purpose threat they acquired during the offseason has only appeared in one game all season and is unlikely to make an appearance in the regular season finale. His presence could jump start the Seahawks offense in the postseason, but it's tough to say how much of an impact he can really have with just a single game under his belt all season.
Neither Seattle nor Denver has been debilitated by these injuries so far. Both are still in position to clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the NFL postseason always brings its share of surprises, which are best dealt with at full strength.