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.

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 said the broken collarbone would probably 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 began caused the Indianapolis Colts to implode, and Chad Henne’s injury early in the season doomed the Miami Dolphins. But in the last 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, while Carson Palmer is playing for the Oakland Raiders because Jason Campbell is done for the season, too. Sam Bradford and Kevin Kolb were injured, too, but their injuries have been relegated to small print because of their minimal impact on 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 either end the season or require several weeks for recovery — so late in this season 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 up close 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 the middle of the 2000 season —  after they had won the in the 1999 season and started the 2000 season 6-0 —  did derail them. In the first six games of that season the Rams never scored fewer than 37 points. Warner was hurt in the seventh game. He missed five games, then returned for the Rams’ 13th game, in which they scored just 3 points. They were 2-2 in the final four games of 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 thought the Texans were better suited to withstand the injury to Schaub than the Bears were to deal with Cutler’s being out. 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 National Football Conference North of the Bears.

Sunday’s results will not change that perception. The Texans beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, although Leinart’s injury puts the Texans’ 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 into the Bears’ 30-yard line. The Bears are now 7-4, the same record the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons had after Sunday’s games. It is practically impossible to imagine the Bears beating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Christmas night without Cutler, but considering their current state, the Bears now have to worry about the Kansas City Chiefs (who, considering how Tyler Palko played Sunday night, could be starting Kyle Orton) and the Denver Broncos first.

Feasting on Others’ Flaws, Bears Mask Their Own

Cowboys (5-9) at Cardinals (4-10)Saturday, 7:30 p.m.Line: Cowboys by 61/2

You can imagine what the schedule makers were thinking when they slapped a bow on this game and dropped it onto the Christmas prime-time television schedule back in the spring. ”What a gift for fans: the mighty, beloved Cowboys, who will no doubt be 11-3, facing the scrappy Cardinals, who will probably be around 8-6 and scoring 42 points per game. Surely Tony Romo will throw for four touchdowns, and we can cut away to luxury-box images of his lovely girlfriend, Candice Crawford, cheering him on in a fetching Santa hat. Heck, Kurt Warner will probably come out of retirement to save the Cardinals by October. All of America will watch!”

Crawford did receive an engagement ring from Romo this week, the only ring anyone involved with the Cowboys is likely to see for a while. Whenever the ”Romo love interest” angle overshadows the game, you know the Cowboys are in trouble (or, not coincidentally, that it is December), though at least they are bad in a watchable way. The Cardinals are stuck with rookie quarterback John Skelton, whom announcers sometimes compare to Ben Roethlisberger, because both quarterbacks are tall and there is almost nothing else to say about the Cardinals.

If this game becomes too tedious, sift through the obscure cable channels and check out the ”Renovation Realities” marathon on DIY, which may include an episode on renovating the entire N.F.C. West. Pick: Cowboys

Jets (10-4) at Bears (10-4)Sunday, 1 p.m.Line: Bears by 1

Mark Sanchez needed an M.R.I. on his sore shoulder this week. Sanchez’s status is questionable, but the way the Bears season has gone, it’s shocking that the M.R.I. machine did not crash through the floor, dragging Sanchez down three stories and right onto the head of Mark Brunell, who stopped by for a checkup.

The Bears have faced many quarterbacks of the caliber of Jimmy Clausen, Tyler Thigpen, Drew Stanton and Joe Webb this season; if a third stringer or converted wide receiver is making his first start of the year, chances are he is facing the Bears. Give the Bears credit for making the most of these opportunities, but they have truly benefited from facing inferior, injured, or unprepared opponents. The average Bears drive starts at the 34, giving them the best field position in the N.F.L. and making life easy for their sacks-and-bombs offense. Returners Devin Hester and Danieal Manning deserve some credit for the great field position, but lots of the three-and-outs by opponents’ waiver-wire quarterbacks also had something to do with it.

The Jets have had their share of fortunate bounces and unlikely victories as well, making this game a Karma Bowl: one team’s cosmic parking meter is about to expire. That team will be the Bears, who have gotten as far as Hester touchdowns, 30-yard field goal drives, and sudden snowstorms can take them. Pick: Jets

Giants (9-5) at Packers (8-6)Sunday, 4:15 p.m.Line: Packers by 3

Here is how this game unfolds:

With the Giants leading, 27-21, midway through the fourth quarter, the reserve tackle William Beatty fields a short kickoff and runs 60 yards in 23 seconds for a touchdown, holding the football like a French bicyclist balancing a baguette all the way to the end zone. After a Packers field goal, Tom Coughlin fails to notice that Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Sterling Sharpe and James Lofton have suspiciously joined the Packers kick coverage team, and after retrieving an onside kick, the Packers drive for a touchdown.

The Giants get the ball back with 1:10 to play, yet somehow manage to engineer a drive that adds 10 seconds to the clock. The Packers drive to the 20-yard line, where Aaron Rodgers, taking a cue from the backup Matt Flynn, morphs into Hal Holbrook and starts reading from the ”Autobiography of Mark Twain” instead of calling a play. Time expires, the Giants win, and stunned reporters head for the interview room, only to discover that a confused Eli Manning delivered his postgame news conference on Saturday. Pick: Giants.

Chargers (8-6) at Bengals (3-11)Sunday, 4:05 p.m.Line: Chargers by 71/2