When you are handicapping the Super Bowl, you obviously need to be very focused on the health of the teams involved. Both the Panthers and the Broncos will be playing their 19th real game of the year - and 23rd if you include the farce that is the preseason. Injuries aren't just a possibility at this time of year - they are inevitable. To properly assess the game and what you expect of it, you need to know who is going to be able to play and how effective they should be - this isn't exactly rocket science, is it? When you are looking at injuries in the Super Bowl, though, it can be easy to overreact and worry too much about what you see. There are four big reasons for that:
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Time: These players have not played for two weeks leading up to the game, and for both of these teams this is their second week off in four weeks because of their first-round playoff bye. In that much time they can heal quite a lot. It's not like starters necessarily have to practice heavily during that time, either. They are very familiar with the playbook by this point, so if they are better served by rest than preparation then teams will readily give it to them. A player that looked like he was on death's door two weeks ago could be a whole new man by kickoff. Remember, they don't have to have healed to 100 percent - it has probably been a long time since they have played at 100 percent. They just need to be good enough to give their best for three hours.
No tomorrow: This is the biggest game of their career for every single player in this game without exception. They also have an entire offseason before they have to play again. They are going to do whatever it takes to be able to play in this game. That could mean taking medical risks that they wouldn't take in a normal game or putting up with pain or discomfort that they wouldn't tolerate in October. There are all sorts of legal drugs that can do wonders for players in the short term. Remember, Ben Roethlisberger threw for more than 300 yards in his playoff battle with the Broncos despite having an arm that was only held in place with tape. Pain killers are wonderful things. Players have also taken massive risks in this game. Thomas Davis is an obvious example of that this year - at least potentially. He broke his arm against Arizona and had surgery soon after that game. In normal circumstances there is no way he would play this soon, but he is practicing and appears at this point like he could play. He's not risking missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime - even if it causes problems down the line.
Disclosure: Teams list a whole lot of players on the injury reports, but you would have to have been born yesterday to believe that they list every player with a problem. The most obvious player this year is Peyton Manning. He's not listed on the Denver injury report at all. Given all his injury issues the last couple of years, though, and the obvious difference in his throwing capabilities between now and the past, it is impossible to believe that he is anywhere close to 100 percent. In fact, I would argue that you have to factor his health heavily into the handicapping of Denver's offense and that his health vulnerability has been a focus of Carolina's defensive game planning. He's the most obvious example but far from the only guy who isn't listed as injured but has issues that would be a concern if we were aware of them. The teams aren't doing anything wrong by not listing these players, but it means that we certainly can't trust the injury reports in any meaningful way.
Vagueness: Jonathan Stewart is listed on the Carolina injury report with a serious ankle injury, and he has missed practice time. He missed the end of the regular season, too. It's obviously a concern given what a factor he is. What you could miss without looking closer, though, is that Stewart has been dealing with this injury for a while now, and has still starred in the two playoff games. He's injured, but his play isn't really in doubt. The same goes for Mike Tolbert and Ryan Kalil, two Panthers dealing with knee injuries that don't threaten their readiness for the Super Bowl nearly as much as the injury report would suggest, and other players on both sides as well. Once a player is listed on the injury report we have no real way of knowing how injured he really is or how concerned we should be, and at this time of year teams aren't going to be eager to fully disclose the truth. Too often, then, we are forced to make nothing more than a guess about what could happen.
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