Quarterback Injuries May Reshape N.F.L. Playoffs

It happened again Sunday, when , starting for the because Matt Schaub is out for the season with a foot fracture, took a long, doleful walk to the locker room late in the second quarter, only to emerge in street clothes with his left arm in a harness. Leinart’s broken collarbone will end his season. He joins a long line of quarterbacks whose late-season injuries have imperiled their teams’ playoff chances.

Peyton Manning’s neck injury before the season caused the Indianapolis Colts to implode, and Chad Henne’s injury early in the season doomed the Miami Dolphins. But in the past few weeks, there have been injuries to Schaub, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler, Matt Cassel, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford. Tony Romo has recovered after breaking a rib this season, and Carson Palmer is playing for the Oakland Raiders because Jason Campbell is done for the year. Sam Bradford and Kevin Kolb were injured, too, but they have been relegated to small print because of their minimal effect on the playoff races.

So far this season, 22 of the league’s 32 teams have started the same quarterback for every game or made changes for noninjury reasons, according to the N.F.L. On Sunday, there were new starters for Chicago (Caleb Hanie) and Houston (Leinart). Twenty-two is not a particularly startling number. Last year through 11 weeks, 18 of 32 teams had started the same quarterback every game or made changes for noninjury reasons.

But the number of significant injuries — those that end a player’s season or require several weeks for recovery — so late in this year threatens to reshape the playoffs.

“It’s hard, down the stretch, looking at a team like Chicago, they’re playing so well, they were really in a rhythm, which is what the playoffs are all about,” said Kurt Warner, an analyst for the NFL Network who, as a quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, saw what could happen when a soaring team lost a player to injury at that position. “Then you get into the ultimate dilemma. Regardless of how Caleb plays, when Jay gets back, when is the right time to put him back in? It’s definitely one of those things that can hurt the momentum of the team, even though the team will tell you it’s no big deal.”

In the Rams’ case, Warner’s injury in 2000 — after St. Louis had won the in the 1999 season and started the next season 6-0 — did derail them. In the first six games in 2000, the Rams never scored fewer than 37 points. Warner was hurt in the seventh game. He returned for the Rams’ 13th game, in which they scored 3 points. They were 2-2 to finish the regular season, then lost their first playoff game. “We were almost unstoppable before I got hurt, and we never recaptured that,” Warner said.

Before Leinart’s injury, Warner said he thought the Texans were better suited to withstand the injury to Schaub than the Bears were to deal with Cutler’s. That was based on Warner’s belief that Cutler’s skill allowed the Bears to overcome their greatest weakness: the offensive line.

In Houston, so much else is going right — the running game is superb, the defense is among the best in the N.F.L. — that the Texans should be able to prevail in a division that is far weaker than the N.F.C. North of the Bears.

Sunday’s results will not change that perception. Houston beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, although Leinart’s injury puts the Texans’ prospects for the next five games in doubt. But in their 25-20 loss to the Raiders, the Bears allowed Hanie to be sacked four times. He also threw three interceptions and could not prevail even though Chicago’s defense held the Raiders to field goals on their first six trips inside the 30-yard line.

The Bears are 7-4, the same as the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons. It is practically impossible to imagine Chicago beating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Christmas night without Cutler, but given their current state, the Bears must worry about the Kansas City Chiefs (who, given how Tyler Palko played Sunday night, could be starting Kyle Orton) and the Denver Broncos first.

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