Getting key players back a must for NFL playoffs


Sometimes it’s not who’s hot, but who’s healthy that matters in the playoffs.

The fact that teams playing in the wild-card round must win an extra game to get to the Super Bowl makes it even more difficult to avoid injuries. Yet those teams have been successful: In seven of the last eight seasons, a Super Bowl qualifier played in the wild-card round. Only 2009 was the exception.

Six times in that span, the eventual champion didn’t get a week off.

Players returning from injury will be huge in Green Bay and Kansas City.

For the Packers, the comebacks of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb for the regular-season finale not only provided a boost to the offense but got Green Bay into the postseason. Rodgers, back from a broken left collarbone, and Cobb, who was out with a knee injury, combined on a fourth-down, 48-yard touchdown pass in the final moments at Chicago.

That TD gave the Packers the division title.

Their reward: last season’s NFC champions, the 49ers, coming to Lambeau Field on Sunday.

“Well, myself and Randall are back, that helps. We had a couple good connections on Sunday. It’s doing the stuff we want to do,” Rodgers said. “We want to be an up-tempo team. We want to get a lot of plays run. We want to try to wear the defense down a little bit.”

The Chiefs, runners-up to Denver in the AFC West, got off to a 9-0 start, but then started getting hurt. Top linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, tackles Branden Albert and Eric Fisher — the top overall draft choice last year — and receiver Dwayne Bowe were sidelined or hobbled at various times, and Kansas City lost five of its last seven games.

“Big-time players want to make big-time plays in big-time games,” Bowe said. “These are the games you have to show up.”

Kansas City at Indianapolis

The injury list might be shorter for the Chiefs, who lost to Indianapolis in Kansas City two weeks ago. But the effectiveness of the returning players is in question, especially playmaking linebacker Houston.

He missed the final five games with a dislocated right elbow and will wear a brace against Indianapolis.

“The first two days it took some time to get used to. After that, it was OK,” Houston said.

Indy is relatively healthy. The Colts won their last three games by a combined 78-20 and committed the fewest turnovers (14) and fewest penalties (66) in the NFL.

New Orleans at Philadelphia

The one wild-card game where injuries are relatively a nonfactor. Unless you count the Saints’ damaged pride about their inability to win on the road.

They went 8-0 at home but have been mediocre away from the Superdome, dropping their last three. They have never won a road playoff game.

Still, they feel their experience in the postseason — many of the current Saints won the 2009 championship — will provide an edge.

“We have been through a lot together,” Drew Brees said. “We know the expectation level. We know the preparation. I think there is a level of pride that comes along with that — and accountability.”

Philly is fully invested in first-year coach Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense, and an improving defense. After losing 10 in a row at home dating to last season, the Eagles won their last four, never allowing more than 21 points.

Holding New Orleans to so few points would be a good idea. The Eagles can’t wait to try.

“It’s what’s the next challenge and what’s the next opportunity,” Kelly said, “and the great thing about where we are right now is if you win, you get to play again.”

San Diego at Cincinnati

The Chargers haven’t lost since Cincinnati beat them in San Diego, taking their final four games to sneak into the final wild card. They have concerns about 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Mathews’ ankle and receiver/punt returner Eddie Royal’s toe. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 2009 and have only six remaining players from that team.

Cincinnati, in the playoffs for a franchise-best third straight year, lost its top defensive player, tackle Geno Atkins, in midseason. Current injury worries include most of the offensive line and tight end Tyler Eifert (neck).

The Bengals were 8-0 at home. They haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the seventh-longest streak in NFL history.

San Francisco at Green Bay

Getting healthy on offense certainly bolstered the Pack, but the defense has been a sieve and is missing its top player, linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb).

San Francisco, by far the healthiest bunch in the wild-card round, also is the most versatile team playing this weekend.

“I think our players want to play winning football, no matter what the circumstances,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “So, regardless of what’s coming forward, it’s not relevant. I think the most relevant thing is that we want to play, we want to coach and participate in winning football no matter what the circumstances, home or away.”