Injuries can be a very big factor in the NFL Playoffs. All you need for proof of that is to look at the AFC Championship Game. Le'Veon Bell had set a Pittsburgh team record with 167 yards rushing in the Steelers' first playoff game. Then he broke that record with 170 yards in the next game. He was the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh offense down the stretch and into the playoffs, and he was the biggest reason for their success. Bell reportedly had a banged-up groin heading into the AFC Championship, and by the second quarter he was done. He was merely a shadow of the player he had been, and as a result the team just wasn't any good. His injury isn't the whole reason that Pittsburgh was blown out in the game, but it was certainly a big part of it.
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So, as we get closer and closer to the Super Bowl, it is a good time to look at the important injury stories that we need to keep an eye on because of the impact they could have on this game. A lot can change between now and kickoff, but at this point there are three injuries that are of key importance and two more that are worth watching but seem less significant and less likely to be impactful:
The Big Three
Alex Mack, C, Atlanta: Mack, who made his fourth Pro Bowl this year, joined the Falcons from the Browns this year. And Matt Ryan had his best career season. It's not a fluke - Mack is that good. Now, though, Mack is dealing with a severe ankle sprain. That's a problem for any player, but especially for an offensive lineman because they need a strong base to defend their territory. Mack is reportedly out of action for the first week of practice at least, and they will do absolutely everything they can to get him ready to go. If he isn't available on the big day, though, that could have an impact on Ryan's confidence and the chemistry he has with the man getting him the ball.
In a game like this where the quarterbacks are both so good and likely so important, an injury to Mack could change the game.
Martellus Bennett, TE, New England: Bennett has not been as visible or effective in the playoffs as he was earlier in the season, and a big reason for that is that he is functionally playing on a broken ankle. He has an avulsion fracture, which means the bone of the ankle chips and the ligament comes away from the bone. It won't heal before the Super Bowl, but rest and management will hopefully allow him to be effective.
If he is able to go at full steam then I am confident that he could have a huge day in the game, so his status is going to be very important to watch.
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, New England: Mitchell is dealing with a sprained knee. He was able to play during the AFC Championship, making a single catch on four targets. The rookie hasn't been a primary target this year, but he does have 32 catches for more than 400 yards. And, as we learned from Chris Hogan's remarkable 180-yard game in the AFC Championship, anyone can be the star for the day in this New England system. The more receiving targets the better in a game like this, so Mitchell's knee becomes a definite interest.
The Other Two
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta: Jones obviously is not in really rough shape - he had 180 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship. He is dealing with ligament damage in a toe, though, and that kept him out of two practices leading up to that game. A toe is obviously a real problem area for a speedster like Jones, so we need to keep a close eye on his progress this week.
If the injury becomes more of an issue, that could be a serious problem for the Falcons offense. I don't think it will be a big issue, but it is certainly worth watching.
Taylor Gabriel, WR, Atlanta: Gabriel is a strong secondary choice behind Jones. He has had a foot injury that kept him out of the final game of the season and which has lingered since. He has missed at least a day of practice before each playoff round. The Patriots like to try to eliminate a key aspect of the opposing offense, and there is a good chance they could focus on Jones. If that is the case then Gabriel would really have to carry a lot of weight in the passing game. If he's not healthy and is limited as a result then things get easier for the Patriots.
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