Here comes the Sunshine State


For a good long while, Florida was as cloudy, as stormy and as gloomy as any state in the NFL.

Tampa Bay and Josh Freeman feuded as the Buccaneers opened their season 0-8, with calls for the job of head coach Greg Schiano.

A mess in Miami surfaced, with Jonathan Martin leaving the team, Richie Incognito being suspended from the team and the Dolphins going on a four-game losing streak that threatened to sink their season.

Jacksonville looked as inept as any team had in any recent season, matching Tampa Bay with losses in its first eight games.

If there was a football wasteland, Florida was it.

But then, something changed. Many things, actually. For starters, each team used its leadership to turn around its mood, not to mention its season.

Schiano turned out to be the coach the Buccaneers thought they were getting when they hired him, quieting his critics and proving his team had not quit on him. Over the past five weeks, the Buccaneers have gone 4-1. Had Tampa Bay not committed a silly penalty in the opening-game loss to the Jets, or made one more play the next week against the Saints, this team could be in the thick of the playoff hunt. Tampa has turned it around.

Similarly in Miami, coach Joe Philbin led his team in the midst of controversy and refused to let it lose. The Dolphins have won four of their past six games, including two straight in cold-weather cities against the Jets and Steelers -- teams they are fighting with for a playoff spot.

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, Gus Bradley instilled an upbeat, positive attitude in a team that now has won three straight games and four of its last five. The Jaguars have taken themselves out of the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft and put themselves into the conversation as one of the league's most improved teams along with the Buccaneers and Dolphins.

Some teams encounter adversity and wilt. Others forge on. The three NFL teams in Florida have done the latter. Each is home Sunday as Tampa Bay hosts San Francisco, Miami hosts New England and Jacksonville hosts Buffalo. Each has another chance to make it an even brighter season.

The clouds have cleared and the rain has stopped. Florida has become the NFL's sunshine state.

Season-ending knee injuries are on the rise: Based on data provided by ESPN's Stats & Information, the number of players placed on injured reserve with season-ending knee injuries has grown dramatically in each of the past three seasons.

In the 2011 season, 93 players were placed on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury. Last season, there were 121 players placed on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury. And this season, with three full weeks to go, there have been 110 players placed on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury. That's a rate of nearly eight per week.

At least part of this has to do with the NFL cracking down on defenders hitting offensive players in the head. With the league lowering the strike zone, the unintended consequence is that more offensive players are hit lower, which increases the chances for the type of injuries suffered by Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

In Week 14, the Patriots lost Gronkowski, their Pro Bowl tight end, and the Cardinals lost Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Tyrann Mathieu. Unfortunately, they won't be the last players this season to suffer a season-ending knee injury.

And now the question becomes: Can a league that cracked down on head shots do anything to crack down on knee shots without completely restricting defensive players? It's a tough issue for the NFL to tackle.

The very injured Patriots: The list of players New England has placed on injured reserve includes defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo, safety Adrian Wilson, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and now Gronkowski. This doesn't take into account that the Patriots lost tight end Aaron Hernandez.

But is it fair to wonder if the Gronkowski injury will be the tipping point, the one injury New England cannot overcome?

The Patriots have averaged 32.0 points per game with Gronkowski in the lineup this season, 20.8 points per game when he doesn't play. Those are points that will be difficult to replace for a team that continually has found ways to squeak past its opponents.

The Schef's Specialties

Game of the Week:  Ravens at Lions – The other Harbaugh brother gets his crack at Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, with each team fighting for its playoff life.

Upset of the Week:  Dolphins over Patriots – Life without Gronk.

Player of the Week:  Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy – On "Sunday Night Football," Hardy introduced himself as Kraken and listed his school as Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry from the Harry Potter series, and he will make his presence felt this Sunday against the Jets.