What are the most notable injuries heading into Sunday’s NFL divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers?
The New England Patriots are fortunate that injuries have not been a dominant storyline in their season thus far. Previous iterations of this team have had to overcome major personnel losses in-season: Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, and of course Tom Brady in 2008, all stand out as significant examples.
At the risk of jinxing it, this 2018 team seems unusually lucky on the injury front. All of the major contributors on both offense and defense look set to play on Sunday; which is important, since the Patriots will need every single player on their team to be at full strength if they hope to topple a team as well-balanced and poised as the Chargers.
According to Wednesday’s official injury report, the Patriots did not have any players missing practice due to injuries or sickness. Only second-year defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. and veteran tight end Dwayne Allen were limited in practice with ankle and knee injuries, respectively.
Most encouragingly, New England enjoyed full, uninhibited practice participation from two of their key team cogs, one on either side of the ball.
The offense welcomed back return specialist and jack-of-all-trades weapon Cordarelle Patterson, who missed the season finale against the Jets after a knee injury knocked him out the week prior against the Bills. Patterson adds another dimension to Josh McDaniels’ offense, as he can line up as a receiver or as a runner coming out of the backfield. He also represents arguably the fastest, truest deep vertical threat the team still has now that Josh Gordon is gone.
Sweetening the deal further for the Patriots is the return of team captain Devin McCourty at safety. McCourty is one of the most experienced defenders in Bill Belichick’s scheme, and the unquestioned anchor of the secondary. He left the Jets game in Week 17 after taking a nasty hit in a bit of friendly fire, and was afterwards diagnosed with a concussion.
His clearance of the league’s concussion protocol and re-immersion into the fold comes just in time, as the Patriots will need all his savvy and skill to mitigate the potential damage Philip Rivers and company can do through the air.
Speaking of the Chargers, they also enter this weekend’s showdown with the majority of their roster in good health.
Safety Jahleeel Addae and tackle Sam Tevi were both elevated to full practice participation Wednesday, after dealing with shoulder and groin injuries, respectively. Tevi, in particular, needs to be as close to 100% as possible on the field, as he’ll be tasked with slowing down the Pats’ best pass rusher, Trey Flowers, flying in at left end.
The most notable full participant on the Chargers’ injury report is a player no one expected to even see again this season. Tight end Hunter Henry tore his ACL way back in May of last year during OTAs, and pretty much everyone except the L.A. brass ruled him out for the season. Perhaps knowing psychically they’d have an opportunity to unleash Henry on the Patriots in the divisional round, they stashed him on their PUP list and kept him there until activating him on Monday.
Henry is famous for eschewing the age-old belief that rookie tight ends can’t find success in the NFL. Back in 2016, he racked up 8 touchdowns and nearly 500 receiving yards as a first-year player. His second act was cut short by a couple of injuries in 2017 that landed him on I.R., so we really don’t know exactly what his ceiling is yet as a player.
What we do know is that his return to the starting roster adds another wrinkle to the Chargers’ offense. After nearly 8 full months of rehab, Henry will either look fresh and dangerous or rusty and slow out there on the field. For Henry’s sake, we hope it’s the former; for the Patriots’ sake, we have to wish for the latter, at least until next season.
Backup linebacker Kyle Wilson and backup cornerback Brandon Facyson were both limited participants at practice, though neither one figures to impact Sunday’s game greatly whether they play or not. The same can also be said of fullback Derek Watt, brother of Houston’s J.J. and Pittsburgh’s T.J.
The two most concerning names on the injury report for Chargers fans are center Mike Pouncey and running back Melvin Gordon, both of whom did not practice on Wednesday, and are listed as questionable for Sunday’s fight in Foxborough. Pouncey is reportedly dealing with a thumb injury, though it would be a surprise if it cost him the start in this game.
Melvin Gordon’s injury is much more significant. He briefly left last weekend’s Wild Card win over Baltimore with a knee sprain, though he was able to return and add some more yards on the ground, along with a touchdown.
The Chargers are understandably playing Gordon’s status close to the chest, knowing that in doing so, they force Bill Belichick and the Patriots to prepare two defensive game plans: one that accounts for Gordon and one that doesn’t. L.A.’s No. 2 back Austin Ekeler is a fine change-of-pace option coming out of the backfield, but he’s nowhere near as gifted a runner as Gordon.
The Patriots know this, and so do the Chargers; which is why most analysts are predicting Gordon makes it out onto the field this weekend. Especially given the magnitude of this matchup, it seems unlikely head coach Anthony Lynn wouldn’t at least want Gordon to try and give it a go and see how his knee feels – particularly considering how woeful the New England run defense has been at times this season.
Either way, his injury status warrants careful attention as we move closer and closer to the big game this Sunday.