Cowboys headline teams winning without injured stars
FRISCO, TEXAS | Dak Prescott’s job was to win without Tony Romo when the Dallas Cowboys lost their 10-year starting quarterback to a preseason back injury after going 1-11 with him sidelined last season. Prescott was so good, Romo never got his job back. “This is one of the finest seasons you’ve seen as a rookie quarterback probably in the history of the NFL,” 14th-year Dallas tight end Jason Witten said.
With the rookie signal-caller, the Cowboys won 11 straight games and secured the top seed in the NFC — the most impressive feat of the season in a year full of teams that thrived or at least survived without injured stars in 2016.
NO GRONK, NO PROBLEM: Put New England on that list. The Patriots were on their way to a playoff spot when three-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski had season-ending back surgery in early December. But Tom Brady and Bill Belichek kept winning. They are 4-0 without Gronkowski and control the race for the top seed in the AFC going into the finale at Miami.
Brady also lost a trusted receiver in Danny Amendola to an ankle injury on Dec. 4. With journeyman tight end Martellus Bennett filling in for Gronkowski, and veteran Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell doing the same at receiver, the Patriots keep rolling.
Bennett has 52 catches for 668 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’s done a great job and he’s been out there every week to compete,” Brady said. “He’s a very tough guy. When you see him, he’s 6-foot-7, 280, I mean, he doesn’t back down from anybody.”
Hogan and Mitchell have combined for more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, four apiece.
“It says a lot for a rookie to be playing his best in December,” Brady said of Mitchell. “It speaks to what he’s all about, his mindset, his character, his determination.”
J.J. WHAT? The Houston Texans lost three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt to a back injury after just three games. But they moved 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from outside linebacker to defensive end to fill the hole and made the playoffs for the second straight season.
Clowney has thrived in a breakout season with a career-high six sacks and 16 tackles for losses, fourth in the NFL entering the final weekend. Houston’s defense has propped up an offense that struggled under expensive free agent Brock Osweiler, who was benched.
NO PETERSON, NO BRIDGEWATER: Other teams looked, for a moment, like they could overcome missing stars only to fall back to Earth. Minnesota reached 5-0 despite the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a devastating left knee injury in a noncontact drill during preseason practice, and a right knee injury to running back Adrian Peterson in Week 2. But the Vikings couldn’t sustain it even though Sam Bradford filled in well for Bridgewater following a trade.
An offensive line that lost several starters couldn’t protect Bradford or create much room for Peterson’s replacements, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. The Vikings had already faded by the time Peterson returned Dec. 18 against Indianapolis, and they lost again.
Rob Gronkowski had season-ending back surgery earlier in the month, but the New England Patriots are still 4-0 without the three-time All-Pro tight end.