Column: Several NFL teams overcome injuries to key players and are surging

Brock Osweiler was the heir apparent to Peyton Manning in Denver, but he bolted to Houston for a lucrative contract.
Brock Osweiler was the heir apparent to Peyton Manning in Denver, but he bolted to Houston for a lucrative contract.
(Denis Poroy / Associated Press )

In the NFL this season, the losers are winners.

Several teams that have lost offensive stars are now surging, and are among the ranks of the 11 teams with winning records.

Carolina was devastated to lose second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin this summer to a season-ending knee injury. He was Cam Newton’s top outside target. The Panthers are 12-0, the league’s only undefeated team.

After some patches of turbulence, Seattle has resumed the pattern of winning every week — and that’s with running back Marshawn Lynch and tight end Jimmy Graham watching from the sideline.


Pittsburgh has the AFC’s top offense at 409.1 yards per game, yet the Steelers don’t have All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who was carted off the field because of a knee injury in Week 8.

Denver has thrived without quarterback Peyton Manning, the NFL’s only five-time most valuable player. His understudy, Brock Osweiler, who is 3-0 as a starter with an overtime victory over previously unbeaten the New England Patriots in Week 12.

Although the Patriots have lost two games in a row, so their arrow is pointing down at the moment, Tom Brady is in the familiar role of turning no-name players into standouts, especially after losing running back Dion Lewis and receiver Julian Edelman.

Maybe the most improbable turnaround was executed by Kansas City, which staggered to a 1-5 start and lost running back Jamaal Charles, who had accounted for nearly one-third of the Chiefs offense since 2012. Instead of circling the playoffs on their calendar, the Chiefs were circling the drain.

Or so it appeared.

But, in a U-turn that should earn Andy Reid serious coach-of-the-year consideration, the Chiefs have won six games in a row and are solidly in position for an AFC wild-card berth.

Particularly when a team has veteran leadership, there’s something about losing a key player that can galvanize a team and cause it to better focus on the task at hand.

“When you lose a guy like Jamaal, everybody’s hearts go down in the tank right then and there,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “But it definitely brings us closer together, because you kind of know you’ve just lost the best player on your team. Everybody else has to raise their level of play, big time. Sometimes it may be asking a lot, but if you want to do something great, everybody has to pick it up.”

Good coaching is obviously a major component of keeping a depleted team on track. But there’s also the behind-the-scenes work of a personnel department that consistently stocks the shelves with solid starters and capable backups who can step into those replacement roles.

In Seattle, undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls has done more than soften the sting of losing Lynch, who is recovering from abdominal surgery. Rawls has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his six starts this season, including 101 in the Seahawks’ 38-7 blowout at Minnesota on Sunday.

Like Lynch, Rawls thrives on running over defenders.

“I have never run out of bounds,” Rawls said. “It’s just my makeup. It’s my whole mentality. I think I would feel less of a person just running out of bounds instead of being physical, showing toughness and [having] a different mentality at the running back position.”

Arizona, which at 11-2 has the NFC’s second-best record after Carolina, didn’t break stride when it lost Chris Johnson, who suffered a chip fracture near the top of his tibia in the Cardinals’ Week 12 victory over San Francisco. He was the league’s fourth-leading rusher when he was injured, and the Cardinals are hoping he can return in the postseason. Still, the team has a lot of faith in rookie David Johnson, a third-round pick from Northern Iowa who has had consecutive big games as a replacement.

Losing a key player can shake a team to its foundation. But as the Cardinals and others have shown, a loss doesn’t always result in an L.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesFarmer