The NFL has spent much of the year crowing about its rule changes and protocols, only to see a spate of concussions at the end of the season. Bad timing for Roger Goodell to bring up playoff expansion.
The injuries are real, and at this point of the season, there's seldom margin for error. A team might have figured out how to get by without a star, but in the playoffs, weaknesses are magnified. The next man up is going to be the next man targeted.
Injuries, or rather availability, can be the difference.
Just look at the Chiefs last week. They lost Jamaal Charles early, and it's hard to say he wouldn't have made a difference. By the end of the game, precisely when running the ball and the clock would have mattered most, Andy Reid was having to call plays for a guy most Chiefs fans couldn't tell you much about.
The Patriots won't have either of the tight ends they expected to have. The Colts won't have Reggie Wayne or Greg Toler. Full health won't guarantee a win, as we saw with the Eagles, but it does give a team its best chance. Squads fight for the bye for a reason, you know.
Let's take a look at the eight remaining teams and how they are faring heading into the weekend's games.
New England comes into the game with only a few question marks of the active players, but don't forget about what isn't there. Rob Gronkowski had successful surgery this week, while Vince Wilfork is a reminder that the defense wasn't healthy either.
Shane Vereen benefited most from the bye week and should get a chance to play. His groin didn't hold up well when he came back last time, so there's a risk he'll have the same issue. The mix-and-match backfield in New England minimizes the risk, but Vereen offers something none of the others do. He has been limited in practice, so he may end up inactive or limited.
Aaron Dobson (foot) should be back as well, while a week of rest should help Danny Amendola (groin) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip). Tom Brady will be listed as probable, but the receivers have been the real question marks all season. With a depleted Colts secondary, matchups will be key, and having healthy receivers to exploit those matchups will be even more important.
Another area to watch is the offensive line, where Logan Mankins had an injury that looked severe, but that the Pats are calling a minor ankle injury. The bye helped, but watch to see that he's moving well, or the Colts will attack him with blitzes and stunts to get to Brady.
Not heads-up football
Another game, another Andrew Luck comeback. The only thing as predictable as that is seeing more injured Colts. The team doesn't do injury management well and hasn't for a decade. Indy is successful despite it, but you have to wonder what this team would be like if it was even average with injury results.
The Colts could be without LaRon Landry, but he's likely to play. He suffered a concussion against Kansas City and then took several head slaps from a celebrating teammate. That's not what the concussion protocol wants to happen, though I have a hard time knocking the guy who did it. He has a chance to be cleared in time, and progress looks like it's being made.
Expect him on the field, if not full go.
The wide receiving corps is in flux, but Luck has been able to figure out how to win with what he has. He won't have Darrius Heyward-Bey, but saying the team will "miss him" is stretching it a bit. He will likely be out due to a mild hamstring strain again this week. He had found a bit of a niche on special teams, so there is that.
With Greg Toler out and Vontae Davis hurting, the defensive back depth is an issue, as is the coverage. The Colts could get overwhelmed in four- and five-wide packages, but the Pats don't have four or five healthy WRs. How those two balance out could be a deciding factor in a close game.
In the end, what matters for the Colts is that Luck and some semblance of an offensive line are healthy. Give Chuck Pagano that, and he's got a shot.
The Saints have a tough assignment: Head into one of the league's toughest places to play without some of their top weapons. That's not a recipe for success.
They will likely be without Pierre Thomas again, as his chest/rib injury is still painful, causing him problems with activity. That likely means it hurts to breathe, let alone take contact. The Saints will shift the workload to Mark Ingram and keep Darren Sproles in his role as much as they can. Thomas bridged the two, and they'll miss him.
The defense is dinged and has some depth issues, but last week it played well without Kenny Vaccaro. His absence was felt, but the defense adjusted and used more linebackers in coverage. Expect the same, which should work with the Seahawks not being able to flood the field with four-wide sets. If Percy Harvin is back, they could do more.
The Seahawks come into the game relatively healthy and perhaps with Percy Harvin back. Practice reports (including this one from The Seattle Times) have been positive, with players talking about his speed. Speed was never the problem with his rehabbing hip, however. There have been no reports about hard cuts or lateral moves, so he is a risky play at best. He could be a nice decoy or have value extending the field, at the very worst.
Aside from Harvin, the team used the bye week to get as healthy as it could. The defensive backfield has some depth issues but has been effective even after the loss of Brandon Browner. Expect the team to continue being physical, which has been effective but does leave it open to injuries. Losing Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson would crush Seattle's Super Bowl hopes.
Wilson is the most interesting one, since he's mobile but has not been injury prone. The comparisons on size were always to Michael Vick, but it may be more than size that's causative here. Wilson is like Barry Sanders in a way, never quite taking the big hit. With Johnny Manziel being very similar, we could have twice the sample size next year.
Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree have some injury concerns, but it's unlikely they'll be real problems when the Niners take the field on Sunday. Both fought through their dings and helped propel their team forward. Gore's knee and Crabtree's wrist are no worse off, given a tough, cold playoff game last week.
The rest of the team is healthy, giving the 49ers a bit of a leg up despite not getting the bye. They fought through injuries all season but are relatively healthy now, including Colin Kaepernick. While the Niners won't say much, his early-season struggles seemed because of a foot injury that the team never explained fully.
Whether it was a bone bruise or plantar fasciitis, Kaepernick has been much more effective once he started to look comfortable. I'd expect more of an explanation once the season is over, when Jim Harbaugh will remind everyone what Kaepernick and this team overcame.
The Panthers needed the bye to get their offense healthy. Despite being a running quarterback, Cam Newton is anything but the problem. He'll need Jonathan Stewart and Steve Smith to be as close to full go as they can to take on the Niners.
Smith is irreplaceable, as Week 17 showed. He's been limited, struggling to adjust to what he can and can't do on his mildly sprained knee. The Panthers have been practicing the expected jams with him, but look for him to do more slants and picks to get him off the line cleanly. Once he gets downfield, he can be effective in routes. He'll have a more difficult time scrambling around, making the hard, low-gravity cuts he normally does.
Stewart is less questionable, but the Panthers have struggled to keep him productive when he's been available this season. Even with the bye week, his knee still shows signs of swelling. He's likely to play, but DeAngelo Williams has the upper hand and may not have Stewart to take much of the workload, which could wear him down.
In that event, Newton becomes the de facto second back—maybe even the first.
The Broncos come in with one key injury: Wes Welker. He has had time to recover from his concussion and has been cleared to play for a while. The final approval came early this week, but it could have been earlier, had it been necessary. He has shown no issues in practice and should play his normal role. Expecting "rust" is folly.
The rest of the team is relatively healthy. With Von Miller out after spraining his knee, the team will have to adjust to the loss of one of its best players. The Chargers will test that potential hole early and often, especially with runs and short passes to either tight end. The Broncos should have had time to make adjustments, but that's easier said than done.
The Chargers are used to Ryan Mathews being injured. His ankle didn't hold up over Wild Card Weekend, and now his availability is a big question mark. The likeliest scenario is like last week, where they put him out there to try it and then shift to Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown as needed. Woodhead will get more looks anyway due to a likely need for more passing.
Mathews is permanently questionable, but the Chargers will need whatever he can give. The fact that he was in a walking boot as late as Wednesday isn't a positive, but there's not much more to read into it.
Another key player in a walking boot is rookie offensive tackle D.J. Fluker. He was in a boot on Wednesday as well and is much more of a worry than Mathews. Losing Fluker would force a shuffle on the offensive line. It could also force Philip Rivers to be more mobile, rolling away from pressure as it comes.
Eric Weddle has a mild hamstring strain but will play. The Pro Bowl safety will get tested by Peyton Manning regardless, but it may hold him out of blitzing, one of his strengths.
The depleted WR corps will have Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen, but there's not much behind them. The Chargers adjusted to two TE sets more late in the season, allowing Ladarius Green to emerge. That could end up being a strength against a Broncos team without Von Miller.