By definition, playoff teams should be healthier; they made it this far more on talent than luck, even the wild-card teams that sneaked in over the last couple weeks. However, it's not always the case, as some teams fight through injuries. They adjust or have an alternate step up and create something special out of the opportunity.
As eight teams get ready for the opening weekend of the playoffs, health will play a huge part. There are players who haven't seen the field in months, lost to preseason or early-season injuries. There are players who hobbled through the season or have fought to come back, hoping to be this year's version of Ray Lewis.
Big names such as Aaron Rodgers, Justin Houston and Dwayne Bowe are dinged up as the playoffs start, with Wes Welker, Percy Harvin and several others making use of the bye week to see if they can get ready once their teams go.
Let's take a team-by-team look around the league at what health concerns could change the way the game on the field unfolds as the playoffs start.
The Chargers have left a lot of their receivers by the wayside on their way to the playoffs, so Eddie Royal becomes even more key. He's played through a toe injury (thought to be turf toe) and seen his production drop despite only missing one game. Philip Rivers will need Royal to up his game, if his toe will let him.
The absence of top wide receivers hasn't hurt Rivers much. The Chargers have adjusted by using two tight ends, and it's worked very well for them, allowing Ladarius Green to emerge as a red-zone option. He plays the same type of game as Antonio Gates and is more mobile at this stage.
Ryan Mathews has been relatively productive despite being continually banged up. His talent is still tantalizing even though health is not one of his skills. The ankle injury that's nagged him for the second half of the season will keep him out of practice but not the game.
Pairing Mathews with Danny Woodhead and, to some extent, Ronnie Brown has worked well, keeping them all doing what they do best while not wearing them down as much. The key there has been the improvement in line play that has kept Rivers upright and healthy.
The Bengals dealt with more injuries than they would have liked at the start of the season, giving their medical staff too much Hard Knocks face time. The survivor effect is in play here, as they've been relatively healthy through the season, though they've certainly lost a lot of talent, especially on the defensive line.
Right now, the tight end position could be thin, with both Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert banged up. It's not uncommon to see a rookie like Eifert struggling deep in the season, but he was drafted in part because Gresham doesn't hold up well. Gresham was held out of Week 17 with a hamstring strain, in large part so he'd be ready for this matchup. He should play, though questions about his mobility and push will remain.
Eifert is much more of a question. He suffered a nasty stinger in Week 16 and missed Week 17 with it. It's made little progress, and he will be a game-time decision, which makes getting a Sunday game all the better for the Bengals. Without Eifert, Gresham's availability becomes even more of a key, given the backup is Kevin Brock, who was just signed.
A.J. Green is obviously the Bengals' biggest weapon, and seeing "questionable" next to his name has some Bengals fans choking on their "Who Dey." Word is that his knee has had swelling after most action since early in the season. If he's back at practice in full on Friday, there's little worry. He'll play regardless, but a limited Green limits the entire team.
The Kansas City Chiefs rested their starters in Week 17, giving San Diego a back door into the playoffs. Despite this, the Chiefs still aren't healthy despite the best efforts of a top-notch medical staff. They'll be better but not at 100 percent by a long shot.
The team has been exceptionally transparent all season long, something that other teams should take note of. There's no game-playing, and their fans learn more. I've heard rumors that their new deal with University of Kansas Hospitals plays into this, but every team has a similar situation. I think it's that head trainer Rick Burkholder is confident in both his abilities and position, having come over with Andy Reid. If that's the case, more should push to do the same.
The Chiefs defense has missed Justin Houston. He's expected to be back, though it's not clear how his injured elbow will respond. J.J. Watt has been able to play through a similar injury with a similar brace, but Houston's is much more acute and seems to have more nerve involvement. If he's able to get some pressure and keep the blocking from focusing on Tamba Hali, it's a big plus for trying to get Andrew Luck out of his zone.
Dwayne Bowe has been cleared to return after missing most of the last two weeks with a concussion. He should be expected to play normally, though "normally" is a bit of a misnomer given that he's been miscast in the new controlled passing offense. Bowe does help if Greg Toler or Vontae Davis show any deficits with their leg issues.
"I'm fine,'' Bowe said, according to an ESPN report on Wednesday. "I had minor headaches. It was nothing big. The coaches were going to rest me anyway, so I had a good time to rest and recover and be fresh for this game. That was the game plan. ... I just felt a little tired.''
Starting running back. Backup running back. Starting tight end. Starting wide receiver.
Indianapolis is used to missing all that—some of its Pro Bowl talent—because it's done it every year. They've made the postseason 10 out of 11 years in large part because they didn't let all the injuries get in the way. Now, imagine what they might have done if they had just an average record of keeping their talent on the field.
One ring, Jim? Perhaps you have to start wondering why your medical results have been in the bottom five of Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost stat since they started keeping it.
The Colts have gotten past the loss of Reggie Wayne, but they're not a better team without him. They've lost Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, but they gave up a lot to find out they had functioned better in a misaligned offense.
The offense really isn't the problem now. Both starting cornerbacks, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, will start this week's games with groin strains. If they can't go or can't be effective, the Colts don't have the depth to keep up with even the Chiefs offense. They have to hope the medical staff gets this part right or it could hamstring them, pun intended.
More than any other team, the Packers are in this particular spot because of injuries. Getting Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb back gave them just enough to get past the Bears last week, but missing Clay Matthews and others makes them a three-point underdog at home, per Bovada.
Rodgers was reluctant to run, but the blocking emphasis worked for him. The Niners will clearly try to test his collarbone, but "hit the quarterback" is a pretty general strategy no matter the opponent. Rodgers showed he can take hits and run when necessary, so there's no need to make huge adjustments. They'll want to avoid the big hits, but again, that's like saying the sky is blue.
Eddie Lacy has his nagging ankle sprain, but he'll play, splitting time with James Starks. His issues with cold-induced asthma will have to be monitored, but the Packers seem to have a handle on this. With snow and wind, Lacy's going to need to go 15-20 carries or more in some scenarios. How the Packers medical staff handles Lacy's in-game maintenance will be key.
Randall Cobb also showed lots of positives in his return from the IR-R. Bones heal, but many were worried about his burst and speed. He showed absolutely no issues with that and should be fine this week.
The real worry is on the defensive side, where Clay Matthews is out through the playoffs. There are some rumblings that he could come back later and is delaying a second surgery just in case, but the thumb damage is already worrisome with the refracture. The defense will have to adjust without him, while TV viewers will just have to imagine what his hair might have done in this weather.
The weather itself is a problem, but for injuries, it doesn't end up as big a factor as most think. Muscles take longer to get warm, but players are more conscious of staying warm. It's tougher to tape things, but athletic trainers have experience just like the players. Things even out, though with this bitter of cold, they'll have to watch for frostbite. You wonder why they can't set up a heated enclosure on the sidelines.
San Francisco comes in relatively healthy after dealing with a lot of injuries. Healthy now, they're headed to Green Bay largely because of those injuries and a tougher schedule. Whether it was Colin Kaepernick's foot or stumbling development, or missing both Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree for much of the season, the Niners have been late to hit their stride.
Frank Gore is having some minor swelling in his knee, but that's a very small concern for a player who's played through knee issues for much of his career. There are solid backups to take some of the load and Marcus Lattimore on the horizon. Gore will step up big and could be a deciding factor if the wind is blustery.
Carlos Rogers, with an injured hamstring, is the other big question mark.
"I ran on it but I don't know," Rogers said after practice Friday, according to Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
If he's unable to go, the Niners not only see a drop-off to his backup, they'll be short on four- and five-wide sets. The Packers may not have one go-to guy, but they have a lot of options that Aaron Rodgers can cycle through. Being able to get the right sets is as important as simple cover schemes.
Although the Saints have fought through a number of injuries this season, by this point they have answers on most of them. Some players are lost, like Kenny Vaccaro, who is precisely the kind of player they need to help control the Eagles attack. Some have found a balance, like Jimmy Graham, who fought through a foot injury. Others, like Drew Brees and his knee, we've got less of a read on.
Brees is an interesting case since he's always had major injuries—never something minor but possibly affecting play like this. Brees isn't particularly mobile, at least not in a Russell Wilson/Colin Kaepernick sense, but any quarterback needs to be able to shift, set and move some. Brees didn't show significant deficits in Week 16 or 17, so there's no reason to worry too much now.
The running back triumvirate has been effective, less because of roles and more because it seems they've only had two at a time. Pierre Thomas has a chest injury that will affect him, either in play-calling, touches or pain tolerance. That puts more of the load on Darren Sproles, who's been less able to handle it this season. The aging patterns of small, quick backs is pretty much an unknown, but backs in general don't age well.
Graham's ability to play through plantar fasciitis is intriguing. Players have played through this, but most see flare-ups. Graham and the Saints medical staff seemed to cure it, though we can't see exactly what's going on inside. Was it a mild case that he learned to deal with or did the Saints head down to Marie Laveau's to make some deal? With this condition becoming more common, teams will be curious to see what the Saints figured out.
Tired of me praising the Philadelphia Eagles' sports science staff yet? If so, just go ahead and click to the next article because I'm going to do it again. The Eagles' health isn't just luck. This was the plan, one the team articulated from the time Chip Kelly came in. Kelly wanted to implement his uptempo attack because he knew other teams would fade.
But not the Eagles; they haven't waned in the second half of games or the season. Fatigue becomes their ally. Instead of maintaining, they're seemingly improving and preventing. It's a model that I know other teams are noticing, and that will accelerate the pace of change in the NFL.
Nothing's perfect, but the Eagles are as close to it right now as the vagaries of probability allow. There will always be trauma and those who don't buy into the system, but giving their team the best chance to win by making sure the next man up keeps sitting on the bench isn't a bad tactic.