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Panthers healthy, Broncos ailing down the stretch

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

In the great 1984 rock 'n roll mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap," there's a running gag about how the band constantly loses drummers to spontaneous combustion. As the band is playing, the drummer suddenly goes up in a puff of smoke.

In 2008, the Broncos are going through a real-life version of this at running back. The only difference: the Spinal Tap drummers usually lasted longer.

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Hillis is the latest Broncos runner to go down.
(AP Photo/David Zalubowksi)

Including the loss of running back Peyton Hillis, who was shelved this week with a torn hamstring that may require surgery and two months to heal, the Broncos now have five running backs on IR. If that weren't absurd enough, projected starter Selvin Young has one carry over the past eight games as he tries to recuperate from a torn groin.

For the Broncos and the rest of the NFL, such injury situations are often simply too much to overcome. While there are many great stories about NFL teams overcoming the loss of significant players – the Giants winning a Super Bowl with Jeff Hostetler at quarterback after Phil Simms got hurt or Earl Morrall helping the Dolphins through much of their undefeated 1972 season – there's a more daunting reality.

"They kill you," former NFL coach Dan Reeves said. "Hey, you're never going to admit that to your team when you're in the middle of the season, but you start to get three, four, maybe five guys down and it changes everything you do.

"It's not even so much about the talent level. It's about what guys can do, physically. At a certain point, you're not even the same football team anymore because you have to change so much."

That is why the mantra during the past decade has increasingly become, whoever is healthy and hot in December has the best chance to win the Super Bowl. In 2005, that was the case with the Steelers, who overcame a 7-5 record with a month to go and went on to win Super Bowl XL.

"The big key was that we finally got our team together the way we were expecting all season," Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu said.

With three weeks to go, here's a look at the injury status of the playoff contenders:

FIT AS FIDDLES

Carolina Panthers (10-3)
After being ravaged by injuries in 2006 and '07, the Panthers couldn't be in a better situation. They have lost only one remotely notable player (rookie linebacker Dan Connor) to injury. With the exception of some minor lineup changes, the Panthers have started almost the exact same lineup on Monday night in their dominating victory over Tampa Bay as they did in the opener at San Diego. In fact, the defense, offensive line, quarterback, running back and tight end were exactly the same. In what was supposed to be a make-or-break season for him, somebody must really like coach John Fox.

Philadelphia Eagles (7-5-1)
Eagles fans sure to scream, "Hey, whadda ya mean? Running back Brian Westbrook ain't been healthy da whole season." True, but that's not exactly a shocker, is it? Westbrook has never been completely healthy for any of his seven years in the NFL. Considering that, the Eagles have gotten what they should have expected from Westbrook (and should have had a better plan to deal with the inevitable times he's not around). Perhaps more shocking or disappointing is the loss of two-time Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews, who hasn't played since Week 2 because of back issues. Aside from some bumps and bruises (wide receiver Kevin Curtis has been limited to seven games), the Eagles have only one notable player (guard Max Jean-Gilles) on injured reserve.

Arizona Cardinals (8-5)
The image of wide receiver Anquan Boldin being taken from the field on a stretcher with a broken jaw may make people wonder how the Cardinals could land in this category. Truth is, Boldin may have missed two games and required surgery, but he has been a beast all season and is fully recovered. Other than Boldin, the Cardinals have not suffered any serious injuries.

New York Jets (8-5)
After manhandling Tennessee three games ago, lots of people were calling the Jets the second-best team in the NFL. They have taken a brutal fall since then with a home loss to Denver and a road defeat to San Francisco. Considering their amazing health this season (there were only three different players in the lineup against San Francisco compared with the opener at Miami and none of the changes had to do with health), there's no discernible reason for it. The Jets are as healthy as they were in 2006, when coach Eric Mangini led them to the playoffs in his first season. Given the decimation the Patriots suffered this season, Mangini couldn't have asked for anything more.

Atlanta Falcons (8-5)
The Falcons don't have any major injuries, which is a big reason why they have had such a staggering turnaround from their brutal '07 season. However, because it lacks depth, this is a team that operates on a smaller margin than most. As a result, small injuries (offensive linemen Todd Weiner and Sam Baker are pretty hobbled right now) have a much bigger impact. If the Falcons are to get into the playoffs, they are going to need this run of good health to continue. After all the nonsense of 2007 (from Michael Vick to Bobby Petrino), they deserve a break.

IN SOUND HEALTH

Tennessee Titans (12-1)
Normally, a team that loses its starting quarterback in the season opener (see: Patriots) is due to have all sorts of issues replacing him. Particularly when that quarterback was once the No. 3 overall draft pick and was considered a savior of the franchise. But in losing Vince Young and his talented-but-erratic play, the Titans may have gained something in stability. In other words, turning to Kerry Collins was addition by subtraction. Other than Young, the Titans haven't had any major injuries. There have been some bumps and bruises (Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch has missed three games and his sack numbers are down), not to mention a lot of limping by star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, but the Titans are in good shape.

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)
The Steelers are more banged up than the Titans, but not in a significant way. Running back Willie Parker has been dealing with injuries all season and the team lost top backup and first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall for the year after only four games. In addition, guard Kendall Simmons is also out for the year. Beyond that, the problems with the Steelers running game (it's unreliable) are much deeper than injuries. But the league's No. 1 overall defense has been healthy, with the exception of nicks to cornerback Bryant McFadden. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is also banged up, but playing effectively enough. That's a minor miracle considering how brutal and awful the pass blocking and running game have been at times.

RECOVERING NICELY

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Williams is back after missing a year with a torn patellar tendon.
(US Presswire/Bob Donnan)

Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
That "hot" and "healthy" mantra fits them well. The offense, which struggled to find its rhythm early on after quarterback Peyton Manning missed all of training camp following left knee surgery, has sparked the team to a six-game winning streak. Now, if they can keep safety Bob Sanders from getting hurt and get linebacker Gary Brackett back, the defense should be reasonable. Yeah, cornerback Marlin Jackson is out for the season and running back Joseph Addai is banged up, but the Colts could easily follow the wild-card path to the Super Bowl title, as the Steelers did in '05 and the Giants in '07.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4)
The loss of running back Earnest Graham was significant and wide receiver Joey Galloway (seven games and 12 catches) has been a non-factor. Throw in the injury to quarterback Brian Griese, who coach Jon Gruden absolutely adores, and you have some issues that most teams wouldn't be able to overcome. But with Warrick Dunn around and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams finally back from the brutal knee injury he suffered last season, the Bucs have covered for the loss of Graham. Galloway's injury has actually opened the door for Antonio Bryant to resurrect his career. Finally, the injury to Griese has put Jeff Garcia back in the lineup. Other than that, the Bucs are in very good health.

SERIOUS, BUT STABLE

New York Giants (11-2)
Through the first 12 games of this season, the Giants seemed impervious to anything. Defensive end Mike Strahan retires and Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora is lost for the season? No biggie. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress butts heads with the team and even accidentally shoots himself (causing unreal amounts of anguish and, ultimately, his loss for the rest of the season), and the team wins at Washington. But then Burress was out against Philadelphia and Jacobs left in the third quarter, and all of a sudden the Giants look downright awful. It's fair to say that the Giants were distracted in that game and the Eagles were playing desperate. But if Jacobs continues to be hampered with Burress gone, the Giants offense is in deep trouble. In short, without Jacobs or Burress, there's nobody on the Giants offense who can change the X's and O's of the game. Yeah, the Giants are still as good as anybody right now, but these losses are serious.

Miami Dolphins (8-5)
Normally, losing a couple of offensive linemen (Justin Smiley last week and Donald Thomas in the opener) and a former undrafted free agent wide receiver (Greg Camarillo) wouldn't be cause for alarm. Furthermore, it may not show up over the next couple of games as the Dolphins host San Francisco and then play at Kansas City. But like Atlanta, the Dolphins are a team on a small margin because there just isn't a lot of depth on the roster. Camarillo was the team's leading receiver (ahead of 2007 first-round pick Ted Ginn) with 55 catches. He and quarterback Chad Pennington were very much on the same page in a short amount of time. Smiley was the veteran presence on a young line. While the Dolphins have otherwise been very healthy, the long-range impact isn't good.

Minnesota Vikings (8-5)
The biggest health issue for the Vikings regards two guys who were trying to lose weight. Defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams still have four-game suspensions hanging over their heads for using StarCaps as the issue is tied up in court for now. Perhaps nearly as significant is the potential loss of Gus Frerotte, who was sidelined with a back injury against the Lions Sunday. If Frerotte is unable to play, Minnesota will turn to Tarvaris Jackson. The third-year signal caller was impressive in relief Sunday, but was benched after just two starts this season. In addition, linebacker E.J. Henderson, safety Michael Boulware, cornerback Charles Gordon and fullback Thomas Tapeh are gone. None are irreplaceable, but it's getting to the point that, as Reeves noted, there can be a ripple effect.

Chicago Bears (7-6)
While the Bears are in relatively good health, this is not a deep team. The offense has been fortunate to avoid anything serious, although you have to wonder if rookie running back Matt Forte is going to start slowing down after 269 carries. The problem for the Bears is that their defense has taken a couple of big hits with the loss of defensive backs Nathan Vasher and Brandon McGowan, both opening-week starters.

Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
Never mind the soap opera of Jerry Jones and Marion Barber. The more pressing issue is how Barber is going to play the rest of the season. As good as running back Tashard Choice was against Pittsburgh, the Cowboys need Barber to be healthy so that they can grind out games in the fourth quarter. They also need him to help open up the passing game, although with Terrell Owens, Jason Witten and Roy Williams, Dallas should be getting open without much help. The team finds itself struggling to make the playoffs in part because of a 1-2 mark while quarterback Tony Romo was sidelined. Throw in the losses of backup running back Felix Jones, guard Kyle Kosier, safety Roy Williams and even Pro Bowl punter Mat McBriar and you're bordering on being in serious trouble.

SERIOUS CONDITION

Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
What's remarkable about the Ravens is that they have already suffered enough injuries to their defense that they shouldn't be playing this well (they are No. 2 overall and No. 3 in points allowed). Baltimore has lost nose tackle Kelly Gregg (a vastly underrated player), safety Dawan Landry, cornerback Chris McAlister and backups Dwan Edwards and Tavares Gooden. Yet the defense dominates like nothing has gone wrong. Still, you have to wonder what will happen if there's another injury or two. On offense, the Ravens have been fortunate not to lose anyone truly significant (wide receiver Demetrius Williams and guard Marshal Yanda), but it's all starting to add up. Running back Willis McGahee has been battling injuries all season. Fortunately for them, there's great depth at that spot.

Denver Broncos (8-5)
The aforementioned situation at running back is tough enough for most teams. The Broncos are actually somewhat lucky that running back Tatum Bell, a guy who is persona non grata in most NFL locker rooms after his incident in Detroit with Rudi Johnson's luggage, was available. Bell, who was down to selling cell phones after being let go, was originally a Bronco. He's not a great back, but he knows the offense. More significant than any one loss at tailback has been the groin injury which has sidelined cornerback Champ Bailey for six games. Denver, which has one of the top corner tandems if Bailey and Dre' Bly are healthy, is 27th in pass defense this season. In addition, the defense has been hurt by the absence of linebacker D.J. Williams (knee injury, five games). The only other significant loss is center Tom Nalen, who is on injured reserve. As great as Nalen has been, centers are easier to replace than most positions.

Washington Redskins (7-6)
Coach Jim Zorn, who's catching heat after his poor use of timeouts on Sunday against Baltimore and the benching of running back Clinton Portis, has been dealt a bad hand in terms of injuries. The latest is the loss of left tackle Chris Samuels, who is gone with a torn triceps. Right tackle Jon Jansen is hurt again, too, and the injuries started from the first day of training camp when Phillip Daniels was lost for the season. Replacement Jason Taylor has suffered the worst injury spell of his career and Portis, despite his high level of play, has been banged all season.

INTENSIVE CARE UNIT

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Bruschi is the latest Pat to call it a wrap for '08.
(Getty/Elsa)

New England Patriots (8-5)
This season has been brutal for New England. Start with the loss of reigning MVP of the league (Tom Brady) in the opener, then add running back Laurence Maroney, safety Rodney Harrison, linebackers Adalius Thomas and Tedy Bruschi and offensive lineman Ryan O'Callaghn and you have the makings of a disaster. Somehow, the Patriots are at 8-5 and tied for first in the AFC East. Yeah, that probably ticks off plenty of fans outside of New England, but it's further testimony to coach Bill Belichick's ability.

New Orleans Saints (7-6)
The Saints were thin on defense before the season started. Losing defensive end Charles Grant, safety Kevin Kaesviharn and cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Tracy Porter put the Saints defense in onion-skin range. They've also lost top backups such as Aaron Stecker, Brian Young, Mark Simoneau, James Reed and Aaron Glenn. Throw in significant lost time to wide receiver Marques Colston, running back Reggie Bush, tight end Jeremy Shockey and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and you wonder how the Saints are still in the playoff race. Hey, maybe there is something to that Drew Brees for MVP discussion?

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