The two-week gap to the Super Bowl leads to a lot of silliness, but I will say this: It gets both teams as healthy as possible. The final game of the year, the deciding one, shouldn’t be tilted by injuries — or at least, minor ones. Both the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots have dealt with injuries, major and minor, all season. But they come in knowing what they have, adjusting to what they haven’t, and that should lead to an entertaining game. That’s not to say the medical staffs are on vacation. There’s been plenty for them to do, from acute work to maintenance programs. Let’s take a look at the last injury update of the 2016 season as we get ready for the big game:
The Falcons come into the game with their top weapon, wide receiver Julio Jones, still a bit of an unknown. Despite the two off weeks built into the playoff schedule, Jones is still having difficulty with his sprained toe (turf toe). He’s still not getting a good push off the line or off cuts on that foot, but he’s still fast, still powerful and still runs solid routes. The worry is not whether he’ll play, but whether the toe will act up during the game, as it did in the Falcons’ first playoff game. The medical staff has done a good job getting him through this effectively, but they’ll need to hope the electricity and everything else they’re using on him works.
The same is true for center Alex Mack. Mack has been rested and treated as much as possible since his Grade II sprain in the NFC Championship Game. The question now is how strong Mack’s base is and how well he’ll be able to move laterally. The Pats defense will test this early, and if there’s any weakness, they’ll attack it hard. Mack will be braced, so there will be some issue, but the Falcons have to hope that he anchors the line or at least can do it enough that they can run between the tackles and not need to hold in a running back on passing downs.
The rest of the team is as healthy and rested as can be expected at this stage of the season. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel seems entirely over his bruised thigh and showed good burst in practice. They won’t have defensive end Adrian Clayborn again, after he was placed on IR after tearing his biceps a couple weeks back, so expect to see a lot of Dwight Freeney, in what could be his final game.
New England Patriots
The Pats only have some minor things to worry about. A fractured ankle doesn’t sound minor, but tight end Martellus Bennett has been able to make it through the season with some physical adjustments and good bracing. His fracture is an avulsion, which means it’s a small chunk of bone rather than a crack, like most would think of. The function is still there and the team has found easy ways to get around the things he can’t do. Bennett will play normally.
The receivers are relatively healthy. Chris Hogan showed that the thigh bruise is of no concern and that he’s a threat. Danny Amendola is seemingly always banged up, but the rest has helped him. The same is true for Malcolm Mitchell, who gets another week of rest after coming back from a knee sprain. There’s still some question about his functionality, and it wasn’t really shown in the AFC Championship Game. Mitchell is once again expected to play over Michael Floyd, but the Pats do have options at the position.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch was a late add to the injury report, but it turns out he was just sore from having a foot stepped on. That is painful, but he has time between now and the game to heal. He’ll play, and I don’t expect any issues there.