The road to the Super Bowl is often littered with potholes that have the potential to derail championship seasons.
We frequently hear coaches discuss how the loss of key personnel can prevent a team from fulfilling its promise, but legitimate contenders have coping strategies that allow them to navigate around those obstacles without getting off course.
In looking at the season, several title-hopeful teams are faced with injuries or suspensions that have the potential to put a crimp in their postseason plans.
How will these contenders deal with the loss of key personnel to get off to a fast start?
Ben Roethlisberger's suspension robs the Steelers of their franchise quarterback for the first four games. Though the team spent the offseason crafting a plan to deal with his absence, those carefully scripted ideas were put on the backburner when Byron Leftwich suffered a knee injury in the preseason finale. Without Leftwich in Roethlisberger's absence, the Steelers will depend on Dennis Dixon to lead the offense through a difficult start.
Tomlin declines to show cards
Dixon, a third-year pro with one career start, has shown outstanding potential in limited action. Last season, he opened eyes with his performance against the Ravens. While his numbers weren't impressive (12 of 26 for 145 yards with one touchdown and one interception), the poise and confidence he displayed against one of the league's most-feared units undoubtedly boosted the confidence that Mike Tomlin and his staff had in the young signal-caller. It ultimately set the stage for Dixon to enter a competition with Leftwich for the interim role during training camp.
While it was presumed that Leftwich was in line to be the Week 1 starter, the argument could be made Dixon outplayed the veteran during the preseason. Dixon completed over 71 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and sported a passer rating over 100 in three of the four games. Although his worst performance came when he received extensive playing time with the first unit against the Broncos, Dixon still displayed the poise, athleticism and playmaking ability that made him the obvious choice when Leftwich went down.
The offensive line allowed the second-most sacks (50) a season ago, yet Roethlisberger continued to post huge numbers due to his ability to extend plays. Given Dixon's scrambling capability, he has the potential to produce "explosive" plays while improvising in and out of the pocket.
Despite his potential, don't expect the Steelers to put the game on Dixon's shoulders. Pittsburgh opens against teams with stout defenses (Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans) or explosive offenses (Atlanta Falcons). Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will be forced to utilize a conservative game plan that will lean heavily on the running game with a few complementary passes to keep opponents off balance.
Given the suffocating potential of the defense, Dixon will only be expected to protect the ball and deliver a handful of plays to keep the offense afloat. If he can manage the game effectively, the Steelers will be content to win a series of low-scoring affairs that are largely determined by the defense.
The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year is capable of making an impact in a variety of ways. He excels at creating negative plays, has the ability to bully tight ends at the line of scrimmage, while also excelling in coverage down the field. In addition, he can rush off the edge.
Given his diverse skill set, the Texans face an arduous task in replacing Cushing. The most-logical candidate to fill some of the void is Xavier Adibi. He's an explosive athlete that can be effective in coverage against tight ends. Though Adibi lacks the aggressiveness to play very physical at the point of attack, he makes up for it with his speed and quickness in coverage. Still, Adibi remains a big question mark due to his inexperience and durability issues. He has only logged five starts in two seasons, and has battled minor injuries throughout his career.
In Diles, the Texans have a hard-nosed linebacker that has been productive at a variety of spots. He gives them an experienced option (20 starts) at the pivotal playmaking position.
Sharpton, the team's fourth-round pick, played so well in the preseason that it shouldn't come as a surprise to see him get significant time at the WILL position. His instincts and awareness stand out on tape and could give provide a viable alternative if Adibi fails to make the impact that the team needs.
New York Jets
The acquisition of Santonio Holmes brought questions from scouts and coaches across the league due to the receiver's four-game suspension entering the season.
Although the former Super Bowl MVP was coming off his best season as a pro (79 receptions for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns), he was deemed expendable because of repeated off-field issues. As a player, however, Holmes is a star on the rise with the skills to be a No. 1 receiver. Throw in Holmes' penchant for scoring (20 touchdowns in 60 games) and the Jets have a lot to replace.
In looking at candidates, Braylon Edwards becomes the obvious choice. The former Pro Bowler was acquired in a trade from Cleveland in the middle of last season to give the Jets a legitimate No.1 receiver. Although he flashed explosive potential, he continues to be plagued by drops at inopportune moments, which makes it hard for the team to anoint him as a go-to-guy.
However, Edwards will have to serve as the top option until Holmes returns. As a big target with good speed and quickness, Edwards is capable of getting behind defenders on deep throws. He has 15 receptions of at least 40 yards in his career, and sports a robust 15.5 yards per catch average. In addition, he has shown that he can produce when given opportunities in the red zone (Edwards scored 16 touchdowns in 2007).
Keller has 93 receptions over his first two seasons. While he can be an impact player, he remains a secondary weapon at this point. That could change with Holmes out. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will have to come up with creative ways to keep the offense going and Keller's versatility could prove pivotal to the game plan. As a quasi-receiver, Keller could align on the outside of formations to take advantage of his size and athleticism in space against linebackers and corners.
Cotchery has been a steady No. 2 receiver throughout his career. While he lacks blue-chip qualities, he's a dependable option with the toughness and courage to make the clutch catch in the middle of the field. With the threat of the top-rated running game sure to hold the attention of opposing linebackers, Cotchery could find plenty of room to roam between the hashes.
The procedure is slated to keep him out for at least the first eight weeks, and ensures that the Pro Bowler will miss significant time.
Given the production (83 receptions for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns) that Rice put up with Favre under center, the Vikings have a big hole to fill.
Berrian is the most viable candidate. Originally signed by the team in 2008 to serve as the No. 1 receiver, he averaged 20.1 yards per catch in his first season with the team. Berrian seemingly flipped roles with Rice last year, but Favre will clearly target him on most of his deep throws.
Harvin will function as a designated playmaker in the slot. He has skills as a runner in space and the team will attempt to get him the ball in the sweet spots on the perimeter.
Though Harvin frequently touched the ball on reverses, bubble screens and fly sweeps, the loss of Rice could prompt coach Brad Childress to incorporate him more into the downfield passing game. As a slot receiver, Harvin could provide a vertical element by running more post routes, corners and square-ins.
Given his superior speed against most linebackers and safeties, finding ways to use Harvin could sufficiently fill the void created by Rice's unexpected absence.