The one thing you know about December in the National Football League is that it's all about survival. For some teams, that means finding any way possible to win a game to keep playoff hopes alive. For others with more control of their destiny, it means hoping you don't lose a key player before the most critical part of the season arrives. That's the surest way to kill the buzz of a successful year, as many teams are learning.
We're already determining which teams are in a strong position to qualify for the postseason. What's harder to discern is how some of those squads -- all of whom would win their respective divisions if the season ended today -- will deal with the unsettling scenario of chasing a championship with a star contributor plagued by injuries. There's already been a handful of teams who've had to accept that their road to a Super Bowl won't include a Pro Bowl-caliber player. The next step is figuring out what that means for their goals in the near future.
1) How will the Seattle Seahawks handle life without Earl Thomas?
There was little question that the Seahawks were going to have a hard time on the back end of their defense without Thomas, a five-time Pro Bowl free safety who went on injured reserve with a broken tibia last week. He's the most critical component of the Legion of Boom, the player whose range and instincts allow him to make life much easier for the other talents in that secondary. If that wasn't clear before Thomas went down, just consider the way Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sliced and diced Seattle in a 38-10 win on Sunday. Rodgers completed 78.3 percent of his passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns. The Packers offense also displayed a dominance that rarely has been seen this season.
Now, is it fair to say that showing had everything to do with Steven Terrell replacing Thomas in the lineup? No. But it does prove that more teams are likely to feel good about attacking Seattle through the air. Terrell has the speed to do the job (he ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash coming out of Texas A&M), but he also has contributed mainly on special teams during his four NFL seasons. Thomas made playing single-high safety an art for a pass defense that is largely built around his skill set. That means there's now more pressure on Seattle's pass rush to disrupt opposing quarterbacks -- and there's more pressure on Seattle's offense to be more prolific than what it showed in Green Bay.
2) How will Matthew Stafford's injured finger impact the Detroit Lions?
Stafford is one of the grittiest quarterbacks in the league. He dislocated and tore ligaments in the middle finger of his throwing hand in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Bears -- and he still managed to lead the Lions to a 20-17 victory (including scoring the game-winning touchdown). Stafford played with a glove for the remainder of the game, which will likely be his only recourse as Detroit continues to fight for an NFC North title and possible first-round playoff bye.
The real question here, however, is pain tolerance and overall impact on Stafford's performance. He admitted to reporters after Sunday's win that the injury did affect his grip and velocity. He also should take a look at Oakland's Derek Carr to see how adverse weather conditions might hurt him. Carr, who is playing with a dislocated pinky finger on his throwing hand, recorded the worst game of the season in a 21-13 loss to Kansas City. (Carr was 17 for 41 for 117 yards and no touchdowns in a contest that was played in frigid weather.) Stafford only has to worry about one more game that could include chilly temperatures -- the Lionsplay the Giants in New Jersey next Sunday before traveling to Dallas and then hosting Green Bay in the regular-season finale -- but it's easier to play through an injury like that with the adrenaline flowing during the game when it initially happens. It will be a far more difficult task in the coming weeks.
3) What do the New England Patriots do without Rob Gronkowski?
The Patriots have proven they can win without Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady (as they went 3-1 during his four-game suspension earlier this year and 11-5 when he sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the 2008 season). Life without Gronkowski should be a lot more frustrating. The Patriots were rolling toward another AFC East title and first-round bye before back surgery landed the Pro Bowl tight end on injured reserve Dec. 3. The confidence surrounding New England's likelihood of returning to yet another Super Bowl wasn't nearly as high after that point.
The good news for the Pats is that tight end Martellus Bennett has shown himself to be a key offseason acquisition (he has 44 receptions for 544 yards and four touchdowns this season). New England also can utilize a variety of quick, shifty receivers (Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola, who's nursing an ankle injury that will sideline him for Monday night's game against Baltimore). New England head coach Bill Belichick also is a master at adjusting to whatever problems his team faces. The reality, however, is that Gronk was a matchup nightmare and the best deep threat on the team. The Pats will be less dynamic without him and -- when you consider a defense that has its own issues -- more vulnerable than they've been in years.
4) How do the Kansas City Chiefs cope without Derrick Johnson?
The one obvious downer in Kansas City's 21-13 win over Oakland last Thursday was the sight of Johnson, their four-time Pro Bowl linebacker, being helped from the field with the second torn Achilles injury of his career. Aside from safety Eric Berry, there isn't another player on that defense that provides more heart and soul than the 34-year-old Johnson. That much was clear in the Thursday night win.
The Raiders wasted no time attacking the Chiefs on the ground after Johnson's injury, as Oakland running back Latavius Murray finished with 103 yards and a touchdown. The Chiefs don't lack for players who bring the kind of athleticism that Johnson possessed. The problem is experience. Ramik Wilson has been a nice surprise starting alongside Johnson (he's had 50 tackles and an interception in eight starts), while D.J. Alexander (who replaced Johnson against Oakland) has primarily been a special teams contributor. Both are in their second year, while another special teams ace, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, might also be asked to take some snaps inside. The Chiefs will find out real fast what kind of potential these options can offer them in the long run. The Tennessee Titans are next on the schedule, and their rushing offense has ranked in the top five all season.
5) Can the Houston Texans really win the AFC South without J.J. Watt?
One of the bigger surprises of this past weekend was Houston posting a 22-17 win over the Colts in Indianapolis. The Colts were rolling, having won three of their previous four games. The Texans, on the other hand, were mired in a three-game losing streak that only illuminated the problems they've been coping with since Watt went on injured reserve on Sept. 28 (with his second back surgery in the last five months). You want to know what the Texans have missed without Watt? Swagger. He's the one player on that team that can dominate a game by himself, and the Texans simply haven't produced enough big plays to compensate for that loss.
The offense that was supposed to be more dynamic with the arrival of quarterback Brock Osweiler ranks 28th in the league in both scoring and total yards. The defense is still posting nice numbers, but Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, is the obvious difference-maker there. The upside is that Houston forced three turnovers against Indianapolis -- including a critical strip-sack by Jadeveon Clowney with the Colts threatening to score in the third quarter -- and that running back Lamar Miller has proven to be a quality free-agent acquisition (he ran for 107 yards against the Colts). If the Texans -- who have the same record as the 7-6 Titans but hold the AFC South lead by virtue of a Week 4 head-to-head victory -- can continue running the football and producing takeaways as they did on Sunday, they have a shot. However, it's looking increasingly like this division's supremacy now will be decided when the Texans travel to Tennessee for the regular-season finale.