Week 16 was another example of just how close teams are at the top of the NFL. There isn't a lot separating one of the best teams in the league like Seattle from a team like Arizona. With the playoffs shaping up to be as close as they are, one play or even one significant injury could be the difference.
At least three teams in the playoff race will be forced to overcome a significant injury, including Dallas which reportedly lost quarterback Tony Romo for the season. Romo has been playing through a back injury, but tweaked the injury on Sunday. Initially, he wasn't expected to miss any time, but after undergoing a MRI on Monday, Romo was shut down for the season.
The Cowboys will now be forced to turn to Kyle Orton. Orton has attempted just 15 passes during the last two years, but will now start against Philadelphia in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC East. Dave Halprin of Blogging the Boys called the news a "huge surprise" and expects the Cowboys to rely on DeMarco Murray against the Eagles.
Dallas isn't the only team without a key player for the rest of the year ...
The Broncos clinched the AFC West on Sunday, but lost Von Miller in the process. The linebacker tore his ACL against Oakland. Denver proved it could win without Miller earlier in the year when he missed six games due to a suspension, but the loss will still be a significant blow. Although he hasn't put up eye-popping stats since returning, Miller has been a disruptive force for the Denver defense.
He will now begin the long rehab process back. Late season ACL injuries have caused some players to miss training camp and even the start of the season. Others, like Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III have been able to return for the regular season opener.
Without Miller, Denver will likely need Shaun Phillips to continue his excellent season. Phillips has 10 sacks on the season, but just one in the last five games.
Week 16 was not kind to the New Orleans Saints. The Saints lost to Carolina, likely costing New Orleans the NFC South title and a first-round bye. New Orleans now needs a win to clinch a wild card spot and would have an uphill climb to the Super Bowl. The Saints will be forced to do that without Kenny Vaccaro who broke his ankle against the Panthers. Vaccaro, arguably New Orleans' top defensive player, will have surgery and miss the rest of the season.
Vaccaro had an excellent rookie season and will likely be a leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called Vaccaro the best overall safety in the NFL. If the Saints are going to make a playoff run, it will likely have to happen on the road and without a key piece to the defense.
Steve Smith left the game on Sunday with a knee injury and Ron Rivera said the wide receiver is "week-to-week" with a sprained PCL. Smith is listed as doubtful for the Week 17 finale against Atlanta and his status for the playoffs is at least somewhat uncertain. If the Panthers win on Sunday, Smith will have the benefit of a bye week.
Although likely playing without Smith for at least a week isn't ideal for the Panthers, James Dator of Cat Scratch Reader wrote it could have been much worse:
It's not a great prognosis, but it could be far worse. The veteran receiver said he heard a "pop" when he intially went down, prompting fears of a torn ligament. Rivera said Smith was "highly doubtful" for the Panthers Week 17 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, but he should be able to play in the playoffs -- especially if Carolina earns a first round bye, which they would get with a win over the Falcons.