Playoff picture colored black and blue Injuries play big part in slowing contenders such as Colts, Vikings

November 08, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

On Sept. 8, the Indianapolis Colts caught a glimpse of the star-crossed path their 1996 season would follow.

In a messy Week 2 victory over the New York Jets, they were hit by everything but lightning. And they were spared that only because game officials wisely interrupted play with 11 minutes left when a nasty thunderstorm descended on the Meadowlands.

When it was over, the Colts were licking their wounds. Running back Marshall Faulk had a sprained big toe. Defensive end Tony Bennett had a sprained left knee. Tackle Kipp Vickers had a sprained right knee.

"We almost needed a M*A*S*H unit to get us back to Indy," general manager Bill Tobin said in reflection this week.

The Colts lost seven starters to injury that day, the beginning of a frightful trend. In a season of diminishing returns, they've had three different players each start at right cornerback, left linebacker and right linebacker. They've had four right defensive ends. They've had 12 starters miss a total of 36 games.

The rash of injuries, coupled with a recent run of turnovers, sent the Colts tumbling to a three-game losing streak. They have gone from 4-0 and leading the AFC East to 5-4 and scuffling to make the playoffs.

They're in the eye of the playoff storm, and not the only team

getting drenched. The Miami Dolphins, who face Indianapolis on Sunday, have lost three in a row and five of six to fall virtually out of contention.

The Minnesota Vikings have lost three in a row. Ditto the Detroit Lions. The Houston Oilers have lost two in a row. The San Diego Chargers have lost three of four. The Carolina Panthers are 2-4 in their last six.

These are all contending teams, playing their way out of the postseason. The common denominator appears to be injuries.

Minnesota lost its best running back for the year and its quarterback on two occasions. The Lions, Dolphins, Oilers, Chargers and Panthers all have lost quarterbacks, among others, to injury.

There are always injuries, of course. But in the era of the salary cap and free agency, there suddenly are few adequate replacements and virtually no depth.

"It has affected depth immensely in the league," said New York Giants general manager George Young. "At the trial [over free agency], I said we'd have a South American society: haves and have-nots and no middle class. I don't like it. We're the ultimate team sport, a sport more affected by injury."

When the NFL accommodated TV in 1990 by expanding the playoffs to 12 teams with six wild cards, it allowed more teams to compete for postseason berths. But look at today's standings and you'll see most spots already are accounted for.

In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins are virtual locks. That leaves a field of six wannabes, headed by the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, fighting over two spots.

In the AFC, the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and Kansas Chiefs are as good as in. That leaves six teams scrambling for one spot.

In Indianapolis, Tobin declines to blame the Colts' collapse solely on injuries.

"We're not getting it done right now," he said. "We can't overcome turnovers. We can't overcome obvious calls going against us. We've got to play hard and hope for the best. Our stance is, all things will even out."

These are the teams on the playoff periphery:

NFC

Cowboys (5-4): Faced with the most difficult remaining schedule of any contender, five of their last seven are against the 49ers (away), Packers, Redskins (twice) and Patriots. If they win three of those games, they're in at 10-6. Even at 9-7, they're in good shape because they have only one division loss. The two games against the Redskins, who swept last year's series, may prove decisive.

Vikings (5-4): Since beating Green Bay on Sept. 22, they've lost four of five. The offense faltered badly during that stretch, scoring just 11.2 points per game. The decline started before the Vikings lost running back Robert Smith to a season-ending knee injury, but in the two games since, they've rushed for a total of 59 yards. This week, they signed Ravens castoff Leroy Hoard in an attempt to revive the running game.

Panthers (5-4): They get the Giants this week at home, where they're 4-0. Their toughest games are at Houston and San Francisco, followed by a Week 17 home date with the Steelers. They'll need to win on the road if they are to overtake the Vikings, who beat them in Week 6 to gain the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Lions (4-5): Another furious finish would vault the Lions into the postseason for the fourth straight season. Last year they won their final seven games. They qualified in 1994 after winning four of the last five and in 1993 after winning three of the last four. In 1991, they won their last six and made it. The question is: Can the Lions, who've lost three in a row, catch fire against the NFC's second-hardest finishing schedule?

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