AFC Playoff Picture: Assessing the Injury Situation of the Playoff Contenders

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Strong safety Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers goes down with a head injury after making a tackle on offensive tackle Steve Maneri #68 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Pittsburgh defeated Kansas City 13-9. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

With five games and no bye weeks to go, the top contenders in the AFC have a varying degree of injuries. While all nine of the AFC's top-seeded teams won in Week 12, some suffered some big injuries (Houston and Pittsburgh), some rebounded well despite a few previous injuries (Baltimore and Oakland) and some returned a key player or two (Cincinnati). 

With five games to go in a white-hot competitive conference, injuries will likely spell the difference between playing beyond Week 17 and going home for the rest of the winter. Here's a breakdown, team-by-team, of injuries sustained in Week 12 in the AFC. 

1. Houston Texans*
  • Record: 8-3
  • Remaining Games: vs. Atlanta, at Cincinnati, vs. Carolina, at Indianapolis, vs. Tennessee
  • Injury Forecast: QB Matt Schaub, QB Matt Leinart

The AFC's top seed can't keep a quarterback healthy. Leinart's much anticipated debut lasted just shy of one half, and a reported broken collar bone will keep him next to Schaub on the Injured-Reserve list. T.J. Yates, a rookie 5th round draft pick in 2011 from North Carolina, looks to be the Texans hope to advance to the playoffs for the first time in team history. Much will be written about the Texans' running game, and how that will help Yates out, but the bottom line is to win in the NFL, you need a quarterback who can complete passes. You can expect Arian Foster and Ben Tate to rush, rush and rush some more, but Houston's going to struggle to hang onto their No. 1 seed. 

2. New England Patriots*
  • Record: 8-3
  • Remaining Games: vs. Indianapolis, at Washington, at Denver, vs. Miami, vs. Buffalo
  • Injury Forecast: RT Sebastian Vollmer

Unless the names "Brady" or "Gronkowski" appear on the Patriots injury report, it doesn't seem to matter. Brady was razor-sharp in a complete shellacking of host Philadelphia in Week 12, and the scary part is they left some points on the field. Since a two-game losing streak, Brady has been the best player in football, throwing for 924 yards and eight touchdowns in New England's last three games (all at least 18 point victories). The Patriots are averaging 36 points a game in that same span of time. 

3. Baltimore Ravens*
  • Record: 8-3

  • Remaining Games: at Cleveland, vs. Indianapolis, at San Diego, vs. Cleveland, at Cincinnati
  • Key Injuries: LB Ray Lewis, LB Dannell Ellerbe

Similar to New England, injuries don't currently appear to be much of an issue for the AFC North-leading Ravens. If anything, Baltimore's defense has played better without Lewis - who has missed the last two games with a toe injury. Without Lewis and Ellerbe, the Ravens defense racked up nine sacks in a 16-6 win on Thanksgiving. With a slate of only AFC opponents remaining, only one of which has a winning record (Cincinnati), Baltimore holds a strong position in the race for a first-round bye. 

(*both NFL.com and ESPN.com list the top three seeds as Houston, New England and Baltimore, respectively.  Baltimore defeated Houston, but since Houston and New England haven't played each other, the first tiebreaker, head-to-head records, is eliminated. According to NFL.com's tiebreaking procedures, though, the second tiebreaker is division record, which would rank Baltimore and Houston (both 1.000) over New England (.750) That moves New England to the third seed. The tiebreaker between Houston and Baltimore then becomes head-to-head, giving Baltimore the No. 1 seed. Maybe someone can better explain why both sites list Houston as the No. 1 seed, but they both seem to be going on conference record, which is the third tiebreaker, and not applicable right now.)

4. Oakland Raiders
  • Record: 7-4

  • Remaining Games: at Miami, at Green Bay, vs. Detroit, at Kansas City, vs. San Diego
  • Key Injuries: RB Darren McFadden, WR Jacoby Ford, WR Denarius Moore, RB Taiwan Jones

Perhaps the most injury-depleted team in the playoff hunt, the Raiders are still winning games. Moore and Jones may have added a little bit to Oakland's offense - that got six field goals from Sebastian Janikowski in a 25-20 win over Chicago in Week 12 - but the Raiders got enough big plays on a stout Bears defense to pull out a big win. The big factor for Oakland's push for a division title is the absence of McFadden. Oakland becomes one of the most complete teams in the AFC when he returns from a foot injury that's sidelined him since October. 

5. Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Record: 8-3

  • Remaining Games: vs. Cincinnati, vs. Cleveland, at San Francisco, vs. St. Louis, at Cleveland
  • Key Injuries: SS Troy Polamalu, OLB LaMarr Woodley

Polamalu's alleged concussion came early in the Steelers' Week 12 win at Kansas City when he hit back-up OT Steve Maneri's knee head-first. He appeared to lose consciousness for a second after the hit was made, but he walked off the field under his own power. He did not return to the game, however, and that could be a major issue for the Steelers as they prepare for the home stretch. Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey left the game with an illness as well. His status is unknown.

The Steelers schedule gets wonky from this point on; after the huge showdown with Cincinnati (nearly a make-or-break game for both teams), they have a short week to prepare for a Thursday night Week 14 game against Cleveland. Then they travel cross-country for a Monday Night game at San Francisco, they'll probably land back in Pittsburgh early Tuesday morning after a red-eye flight to begin preparing for another short week game on Saturday against St. Louis. They end the season with a tough road game at Cleveland. Health will be critical for the Steelers, who likely will get Woodley back against the Bengals. 

6. Cincinnati Bengals
  • Record: 7-4

  • Remaining Games: at Pittsburgh, vs. Houston, at St. Louis, vs. Arizona, vs. Baltimore
  • Key Injuries: WR Jerome Simpson, SS Chris Crocker

The news surrounding the Bengals is more about who they got back from injury as opposed to who was hurt. A.J. Green came up with a huge catch at the end of the Bengals' comeback 23-20 win over Cleveland in Week 12. No word yet on whether Simpson or Crocker - both left Sunday's game - sustained serious injuries, but Cincinnati is arguably the most resilient team in the AFC. The win over the Browns marked the fifth time this year the Bengals have come back from a 10 point deficit to win a game this year. 

7. Denver Broncos
  • Record: 6-5

  • Remaining Games: at Minnesota, vs. Chicago, vs. New England, at Buffalo, vs. Kansas City
  • Key Injuries: CB/KR Cassius Vaughn

Vaughn fractured his leg on the game's opening kickoff, and will likely keep him out for the rest of the year. The Broncos only suited up 52 players - and just two quarterbacks - in their 16-13 win over San Diego in Week 12. The Broncos elected not to sign a replacement for QB Kyle Orton, whom they cut last week. It's expected that practice squad QB Adam Weber will be signed to the active roster this week. Other than that, the Broncos don't appear to have many injuries. With a defense that's allowed no more than 17 points in the past four games, they appear to be peaking at the right time. 

8. New York Jets
  • Record: 6-5

  • Remaining Games: at Washington, vs. Kansas City, at Philadelphia, vs. New York Giants, at Miami
  • Key Injuries: DE Mike DeVito

DeVito left the Jets' 28-24 Week 12 win over Buffalo with a knee injury - the same injury he's been battling since Week 7. He missed two games earlier this season. That could be critical to the Jets playoff chances, which are circling the drain even with the win over the Bills

9. Tennessee Titans
  • Record: 6-5

  • Remaining Games: at Buffalo, vs. New Orleans, at Indianapolis, vs. Jacksonville, at Houston
  • Key Injuries: LB Barrett Ruud

Some Titans fans may not even have a problem with Ruud's absence. Rookie Colin McCarthy is playing strong defensive football, and led the Titans with 10 tackles. He had the game-winning interception as the Titans kept their playoff hopes alive with a 23-17 win over the Buccaneers in Tampa in Week 12. 

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