After 17 regular-season games and four postseason matchups, a Super Bowl berth can mean an immense physical toll for participants on both sidelines. Despite the NFL’s best attempts to cut down on the grizzly knee ligament injuries and concussions that threatened their league, injuries are a part of the game.
Yet, the greatest ability is availability. That’s the battle the NFL and its team doctors have been battling for decades. Part of getting to the Super Bowl is being healthy enough to contribute. The Bucs won last year’s Super Bowl thanks partly to injuries that decimated the Chiefs’ entire offensive line and left them open for business for the Tampa Bay pass rush.
Los Angeles has been one of the healthiest teams in the league during the Sean McVay era, thanks in part to their head coach’s preference for fewer “full-go” practices, opting for shorter practices, and allowing veterans to rest for Wednesday sessions. According to the Adjusted Games Lost Metric, the Rams were fifth among players in games missed due to injuries in 2021.
The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t been as lucky. They’ve lost offensive tackle Riley Reiff, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to season-ending injuries. Not only is the talent stacked against them, but they’ve been less lucky in keeping their most talented starters available as well.
Featured players for both the Bengals and Rams have fought through a plethora of physical setbacks that would bench the average person for an entire season. The Rams listed nine players on their injury report heading into the week, including two players recently activated from injured reserve: Running back Darrell Henderson and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day. Day will be seeing his first game action since a pectoral injury in Week 7.
In the Rams’ backfield, running back Cam Akers is the most prominent player to rebound from an injury setback this season. In July, Akers tore his right Achilles tendon. In Week 18, he returned after a truncated rehab from one of the most severe injuries an athlete can suffer. What would typically have required approximately a year of recovery for a skill position player who relies on quick-twitch movements and quickness took just six months. A combination of blood flow restriction therapy and a surgical method specialized by Neal ElAttarche, who repaired Kobe Bryant’s Achilles in 2013, had him back on the field in early January. Whether he’s crazy or stupid for putting his long-term health at risk playing a position NFL teams run through like socks (see: Todd Gurley) remains to be seen.
The Rams’ Andrew Whitworth is one man who’s seen players come and go through the years. Whitworth spent his offseason rehabbing his left Patella Tendon in Southern Cal with Dr. ElAttrache. For any 300-pound lineman, keeping those knee joints in game shape after undergoing invasive surgery is difficult enough, but for a 40-year-old, it’s an even more enormous task.
ElAttrache also had another VIP patient: Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Fourteen months ago, Burrow dropped back in the pocket, stood tall and lofted a pass under pressure. A diving Jonathan Allen banged into his knee and left him writhing in pain, ending his rookie season with a torn ACL and MCL. Burrow was operated on by ElAttrache and rehabbed alongside Whitworth in California. Even he has come a long way from the guy who was admittedly traumatized by his knee injury and played from the pocket midway through training camp. Burrows’ recovery exemplified the physical and mental barriers accompanying a comeback from injury.
Likewise, Bengals center Trey Hopkins suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 of last season, but has been a key cog in their title chase on a reconstructed knee. Due to his abbreviated recovery, Hopkins rested for Wednesday practices. However, he’s also been one of the weak points in an already porous offensive front.
In the first half of the AFC Championship Game against Kansas City, Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah sprained his MCL, but has reportedly been cleared to play. The most recent instance of a premier pass-catcher limping his way through the NFL finale in recent history was Terrell Owens in Super Bowl XXXIX. He played 62 snaps, caught nine passes and gained 122 yards that day. Whether Uzomah has that type of performance in his bones remains to be seen, but his presence will be a huge boon to a Bengals offense that relies on him heavily in the red zone.
The physicality of the game can’t be escaped. However, masking the pain and putting much-needed surgeries aside for one more week can often make the difference. One of these injured warriors could be the hero.