The NFL season is a physical grind. Every player who sees significant time during the season is dealing with some kind of injury by the end. In the playoffs, health is often the deciding factor. And at this time of year, it is not about being without injury. It is about how players are able to overcome the damage done to them over the long haul.
In the coming game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, the most important injury question for both deals with the quarterback. Tony Romo has been dealing with his back all season. He was still rehabbing from offseason back surgery when the season began, and took a couple of games to get really comfortable. Then he had two transverse processes broken in the first game against Washington. That injury impacted three games, the one it happened in, the game Romo missed against the Arizona Cardinals, and the Thanksgiving Day game against the Philadelphia Eagles, where the schedule kept Romo from following the Wednesday off routine and Toradol shot before playing. All three were losses, and until the Cowboys went on the red hot run through December (while the Eagles found themselves molting and unable to fly), they were losses that placed Dallas in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers did not injure his calf until week 16 of the season in the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then had a little personal attention paid to it by Ndamukong Suh in the season finale against the Detroit Lions. He had the benefit of a week off since the Packers earned a bye by defeating the Lions. But he is still recovering, and did not practice on Wednesday as the team reevaluated the injury.
Romo did not have the luxury of taking the week off, having to face the same Lions team in the Wild Card round. Despite the clear conspiracy to make sure the Cowboys advanced, involving the referees, the league office, John Mara, a state governor, Sony Pictures, and the White House, Romo was still sacked six times, including two by Suh who was playing after the NFL picked up the suspension it had dropped on him. Per his year-long weekly routine, he too did not practice on Wednesday, so there is no indication whether he is suffering any effects from that pounding.
Dallas and Green Bay both have ridden potent offensive attacks into the playoffs. Although the Cowboys have relied much more heavily on DeMarco Murray and the running game, Romo also finished the year with the highest completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating in the league. Rodgers was more central to the success of his team, and it is believed he will be named the league MVP. Clearly, both teams rely on their quarterbacks to make the play when the game is on the line. Romo and Rodgers have done that all season long, but now they have to deal with the recent batterings they have been through. There have been times earlier this season when Romo appeared to be hampered by his back, just looking off on some throws. Rodgers had to leave the Lions game after he pulled up, but still managed to complete a touchdown pass as he was falling. He later returned to close out the game and ensure the win.
There is no question that the two players are very tough as well as very good. But with the injury history, you can be sure that both defenses have made putting pressure on them an even bigger priority than normal. Neither is going to be as mobile as they have been in the past. Rodgers may be the most affected of the two in his ability to evade the rush, both in how well he can run and in not wanting to aggravate the injury further. He is having to play before the kind of injury he has is considered fully healed. That is not likely to keep him off the field, however. It is win or nothing football now. Both Rodgers and Romo will be out there playing if at all possible.
While Romo's situation deals almost exclusively with his ability to throw the ball and move around when rushed, Rodgers also may have problems handing the ball off if he can't trust his leg when pivoting and moving away from center. It will certainly be something to watch when the Packers are on offense. But given his nature, he will more than likely fight through the pain to make sure his team does not become one dimensional, which would just set the Cowboys pass rush up even more.
As a fan of the game, I hope both players are able to be as close to their full capabilities as possible, and let the best team win. As a fan of the Cowboys, I would do my happy dance if Rodgers was ruled out. Of course, I also hope no bad news emerges about Romo the next couple of days.
Determination and courage always play a part in NFL games, but for these two, those may be the most important traits they bring to Lambeau Field this Sunday.