Heading into the 2008 NFL season, the Patriots, Chargers, Colts, and Jaguars were widely considered the elite teams in the conference. One of the four was selected as a Super Bowl representative by several people. As fate would have it, unexpected injuries have changed everything.
New England was "Almost Perfect," finishing the regular season 16-0 in 2007, undefeated until the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Contrary to popular belief, the team’s goal was to win the Super Bowl, not to be perfect.
The Patriots were the favorites to return to the Super Bowl until a cruel twist of fate in Kansas City. The injury to QB Tom Brady is a devastating blow to the franchise and to the NFL. The league was looking forward to marketing Tom Brady vs. Brett Favre in Week Two.
The team finally had a receiving corps as talented as their quarterback, and he set a league record by passing for 50 touchdowns, throwing six more in the playoffs. Tom Brady was also as durable as he was talented. The Patriots spent the majority of the year passing out of a three-receiver set.
The Patriots have decided to trust the system and hand the keys to the offense to Matt Cassel and not bring in another QB. For the Patriots to return to the playoffs in Brady’s absence, a few things need to happen.
The team’s last two losses in the postseason have occurred when the defense couldn’t hold a lead in the closing minutes. Allowing long touchdown drives due to a suspect secondary and an elderly group of linebackers.
The team’s lack of offensive balance has been a huge problem in sustaining time-killing drives. The Patriots will have to, in a sense, go back to square one and provide Matt Cassel with a running game to help him out.
He is a veteran that knows the system well, and he received several reps in the preseason. The Pat’s are still the team to beat in the AFC East, and I still see New England as a team that can make it to the playoffs. But how far is the question.
The Chargers came out flat to start the 2007 season and then recovered nicely to finish the season strong, beating the Titans at home and impressively defeating the Colts on the road, prior to losing to the Patriots, again.
The Chargers are dealing with several prominent players coming back from injuries. QB Philip Rivers is looking to return to form after having his knee rebuilt. TE Antonio Gates is recovering from a serious toe injury.
The biggest injury is the one that OLB Shawne Merriman has to deal with. He has two ligament tears in his knee and against the advice of four doctors decided to play. Several people blamed the organization, but the blame lies on the doorstep of Shawne’s decision. He was actually told to have the surgery at the end of last season but declined for some strange reason.
I disagree with the decision to play.
He apparently has come to his senses and after one week decided to shut it down and have the knee rebuilt through surgery. He was recently placed on I.R., ending his season.
The issue doesn’t stop there, as his replacement, Jyles Tucker, was signed to a five-year contract extension, which has, in effect, replaced Merriman for more than this season.
Talented undrafted OLB Antwan Applewhite recently cut, re-signed to the practice squad, and was placed on the active roster on Sept. 10.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson, whose ticket to Canton is already punched, is showing no ill effects from the knee injury that ended his season in Indianapolis.
He was hammered by the national media for not playing with a sprained knee against the Pats. The fact of the matter was, if he did, he wouldn’t have been the ‘L.T.’ we all know, and he would’ve hurt the team instead of helping them.
The real question is for the coaching staff. Knowing of the injuries to Rivers and Tomlinson, why not just start QB Billy Volek and RB Michael Turner and live with the results?
He will play pissed off and with a chip on his shoulder this season, seeking another NFL rushing title.
Another issue is the health of NT Jamal Williams, the heart and soul of their defense. He is the key to the defense’s success. There are few NTs that can take up the space that he does or that have the strength that he adds to the equation.
His impact can’t be overstated. His play in the middle makes the linebackers shine when the opposition’s offensive line has to commit two guys to block him.
At the age of 32, he had both knees scoped in the offseason. If he goes down, it will be hard for the team to adjust. I still see the Chargers as a team that will make the playoffs.
The Colts came up short last season and lost to the Chargers for the third-straight time. It is safe to say that the Chargers have the Colts' number. The teams resume their battle to prove otherwise in San Diego on Nov. 23.
Offensively, QB Peyton Manning, out all of the preseason due to knee injury, made it back for Week One but showed a little rust. A bigger issue is the injury to C Jeff Saturday, who chose to rehab his knee as oppose to having surgery.
The Colts started rookie Steve Justice. The team is also dealing with an injury to TE Dallas Clark, who has a knee injury.
Defensively, the Colts have to stop the run, as evidenced in Week One. I feel that the Colts will shore up this facet of their game, but the team has just cut starting DT Ed Johnson for disciplinary reasons. To say that the Colts are short on DTs would be an understatement.
Prior to the season, DT Quinn Pitcock retired after one season. I still see the Colts making the playoffs, but a bigger question remains. Can this team start the alarming trends of turnovers at crucial times and losing at home?
The Jaguars had a solid 2007 season before falling to the Patriots in the playoffs. Offensively, Jacksonville used a two-headed rushing attack that was one of the league’s best, as well as a controlled passing attack.
Defensively, Jacksonville was excellent at stopping the run and playing solid in pass coverage. The issue for them was the lack of a pass rush. The team drafted DE Derrick Harvey in the first round and DE/OLB Quentin Groves in the second round to correct the problem.
Unfortunately, injuries have derailed that plan. The injuries to the interior of their offensive line have sent the team into a tailspin. C Brad Meester, guards Vincent Manuwai and Maurice Williams are all ailing. Replacing a combined 23 years of experience won’t be easy. This is on the heels of the unfortunate shooting of OT Richard Collier.
To make it to the playoffs, the Jaguars will have to shore up their offensive line and get to the quarterback on defense.
The above-mentioned elite teams dealing with injuries opens the door for several other teams to prove that they're contenders in the conference. The teams that need to capitalize on the others' misfortune, until proven otherwise, are the Steelers, Bills, Jets, Titans, Texans, and Broncos.
The pieces are in place for the Bills and Jets to end their playoff draughts. The Titans defense is solid, but the Vince Young issue could slow them down.
The Steelers are still solid and are a team to be reckoned with; it is just a matter of the offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger holding up and them stopping the run in December and January.
The Broncos need to take advantage of the Chargers' injuries and challenge them for the AFC West title.