Well, it's that great time of year again. The NFL playoffs have finally arrived to the delight of fans around the world. The magical, yellow brick road leading to the land of Oz (the Super Bowl) ends up this season in New Orleans.
Sadly, our Saints (7-9) will be spectators watching the magical mystery tour culminate on their own turf on Feb. 3. Glad to have Coach Sean Payton back for next season.
Along the way, Damage Control (my column) has reported on the hundreds of NFL bodies left along the roadside due to injury each week. Each contending team was searching to find its best path to the Land of Oz, especially leading up to the final determination of the playoff spots at Week 17.
Just look at what happened at the end of Week 16 to players on teams with playoff hopes going into Week 17. Texans running back Arian Foster left the game against the Vikings with an irregular heartbeat. Foster tweeted afterward, "saw a cardiologist today and everything is back to normal." I might ask what is normal for an NFL player relative to normal resting heart rate. Maybe Foster should have asked his cardiologist about his heart rate variability?
Mario Manningham, 49ers wide receiver, departed the game against Seattle with an apparent knee injury. X-rays were negative with an upcoming MRI. When will these so-called skill players ever learn that they need to wear kneepads?
Former Tulane Greenie (my alma mater) and Bears running back Matt Forte injured his knee in the Bears' Week 16 victory over Arizona and did not return to that game. Later Forte was quoted as saying, "I can't see myself missing next week (17)." Forte had tremendous discipline and fortitude when I knew him at Tulane.
Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware left the game against the Saints with a strained right shoulder. He has also had a history of a stinger/burner – "when the head is hit and forcefully bent sideways, a nerve in the neck can be pinched near the bones, muscles, or other neck tissue." Ware also has an injured elbow. You could see him taped up like a Christmas present in the Cowboys loss last Sunday night in Washington.
And, finally, Packers return ace Randall Cobb sprained his right ankle and did not return to their Week 16 game against the Titans, causing Coach Mike McCarthy to comment, "with ankle sprains and joint injuries, the next day is a huge indicator." Coach, the trouble starts when the athletic trainer takes the tape off post game, and real trouble will hit within 48 hours.
Last Sunday, the Falcons (13-3) lost to Tampa Bay 22-17, which had no effect on Atlanta's home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, it was a costly loss due to injuries to Falcons defensive end John Abraham, Atlanta's best pass rusher, who left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury. And cornerback Dunta Robinson, who suffered a head injury in the first quarter, did not return.
As result of last Sunday's NFL games, here is how the first round of the playoffs will play out. In the AFC, the South Division champion Houston Texans (12-4) will host the Bengals (10-6), while the Colts (11-5) will travel to Baltimore (10-6), the winner of the North.
Over in the NFC, the NFC North-winning Packers (11-5) will host Minnesota (10-6) and Seattle (11-5) will travel to play at Washington (10-6), the winner in the East.
We should take a moment to reflect on the potential price a football player may have to pay along his journey to ultimately reach the promised land. The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) estimated that in a recent year there were 413,620 injuries in youth football alone.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research estimates that there are about 300,000 football-related concussions each year. Ten to 15 percent of high school football players sustain concussions each year.
More than 4,000 retired NFL players are suing the league for concussion-related issues. But it makes you wonder if these same plaintiffs were sporting multiple concussions – some diagnosed and some not – along their path to the NFL – from biddy ball to big league ball.
Moving on, I was given a choice of which wild-card games to review. My choice is the repeat of last Sunday's game between the Packers and the Vikings, which now takes place Saturday night in Green Bay.
Earlier this season, I chronicled the incredible comeback from a career-threatening knee injury in 2011, by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. By the way, Peterson finished this season with 2,097 yards – only the seventh player in NFL history to reach the 2,000 yard mark in a single season and just nine yards short of Eric Dickerson's record. Peterson did rack up 210 yards against the Packers in December and 199 yards last Sunday. He knows the Packers' defensive front line's weaknesses and how to exploit them.
What is also impressive is the fact that in the Week 16 game against the Texans, Peterson came out of the game early with what was eventually listed on the Vikings injury report as an "abdomen injury." Typically in traumatic, contact sports like football, "the abdomen can be damaged by a severe blow (blunt injury), but the skin remains intact – the kind of injury that can result from being tackled in football," as attested to in the book "Athletic Training and Sports Medicine."
From what Peterson accomplished last Sunday against the Packers, I doubt he had any residual effects from his abdominal injury listing. However, let's still keep an eye on him and his ability to side step and cut - all which can be compromised, among other variables, with a sore abdomen. Of note, Peterson did comment after the recent game against the Packers that his abdomen did feel much better than it did against the Texans.
The Vikings must keep Peterson healthy and ready to run Saturday so as to keep Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. Rodgers, last season's MVP winner, has thrown for 651 yards and five touchdowns against the Vikings this season. I think it goes without saying that the Vikings defense will have its hands full Saturday night at Green Bay.
Rodgers, although not hampered as of yet, brings his own damage control to Saturday's contest. He first appeared this season on the Packers' injury report at Week 7, when the Packers faced the Rams. He was listed with a calf injury, but he also was noted as "full practice participation." Rodgers carried this calf listing through Week 9 against the Cardinals.
Then Rodgers magically reappeared on the weekly injury report at Week 16 against the Titans with an ankle injury. Once again, he was also listed as "full practice participation."
Now, if I were the Vikings and Packers, I would assign an intern – I did so this season – to scour their respective opponent's injury report and look for consistent patterns of injuries to key players each team was facing, such as Peterson and Rodgers.
Then, I would look at how I could cause that injury to create a drop in the respective player's performance by using "injury challenging" offensive or defensive schemes – all legal and permissible – to stress the athlete and his respective injury to the breaking point.
Such as the case with making Peterson have to excessively plant and cut (stressing the abdominal muscles, which are stabilizer muscles for the upper and lower body) to get out of harm's way – a great mode to challenge a potential abdominal injury.
Against the Packers, I would definitely force Rodgers to have to scramble laterally and change direction in the pocket to put stress on the ankle and the calf to the point of fatigue. Keep in mind, Rodgers sucked up those injuries and did not miss practice during the season, while his lower extremity injuries (calf and ankle) increased along the "kinetic chain" – down the leg.
What I am suggesting is legal and part of a well-thought out game plan to attack one of your opponent's weak points – his injury history. The key to this strategy is to never try and hurt your opponent. Rather, based on their respective prior injury history, use their greatest strength against them – the athletic mind-set of pushing beyond the limits of human performance to win -- even to the point of sacrificing one's body for the team.
As of Wednesday, the Packers injury report noted that wide receiver Jordy Nelson returned to practice from a knee injury sustained in last Sunday's game against Minnesota, although he may be questionable for Saturday's matchup. His fellow teammates, wide receiver Jarrett Boykin (ankle) and defensive end Jerel Worthy (knee), were spectators, while running back James Starks (knee) dressed for practice but was also a spectator. Boykin was also out of practice Thursday as well. McCarthy did say Wednesday that Worthy's knee injury would keep him out the rest of the season.
Keep in mind, the Packers lack a consistent ground attack and a defense that can stop the opponent on a regular basis.
Wednesday was a good news day for the Packers with the return to practice by veteran Pro Bowl safety Charles Woodson, who has been out since October, missing nine games with a broken collarbone.
Over in Minnesota, cornerback Antoine Winfield, who injured his hand two weeks ago, left the game against the Packers early. "We don't know what's going to happen with Antoine (Winfield), we'll see how he does throughout the week," Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier said. "He was in quite a bit of pain yesterday (last Sunday), so we'll have to see how he does during the week and make a decision maybe later on."
Safety Harrison Smith also departed last Sunday's game but was able to return after having his shoulder evaluated. Smith is not expected to be a full practice participant this week.
It is time to reflect on the NFL, a land of real life cartoon characters – we play their video games, do we not – where grown men are playing a game which begins in childhood and advances all the way to the big leagues for the select few. Along the way, the player gets bigger, faster, stronger and more talented with coaching inside and outside the organized competition.
While moving up the food chain of biddy, college, and to pro football, there is increased pressure to win, in many cases to secure the head coach's job and to create a future demand for the player, allowing both to advance to the next level where the rewards (financial, prestige, power) grow larger with each rung up the ladder.
If you make it to the roster of one of the 32 NFL teams, it is no easy task to stay there with an average NFL career of a little over three seasons. So here is my point. For a team in the playoffs, you either win or go home and start the offseason. Winning is the only option on the table.
You attack your opponent's weakness, including any opposing player's injuries, if he chooses to suit up. The mistake the Saints' players made in Bountygate was to have allegedly put money on the table and to talk about it.
I had one top NFL player I helped in recent years tell me, "the book on me is to take out my knees." I had him instructed in boxing and kick-boxing in case he needed to level the playing field.
You learn in pro sports quickly that intimidation can be an influencing factor to long- term survival. Many times the tough guys rarely have to fight. You just pick your spots, as one of my NHL enforcer clients would tell me.
With the game at hand Saturday night in Green Bay, it comes down to just two players – Peterson vs. Rodgers -- each with their own damage control, as to who will be broken first. The other members of each team are just supporting characters in a future video game depending on the outcome.
Let's sit back and enjoy the show.