Those disappointed by the lack of pre-Super Bowl drama caught a break when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Falcons center Alex Mack will be playing on a fractured fibula. It's a ready-made Willis Reed/Michael Jordan/Terrell Owens storyline, and an early talking point in a matchup filled with wait-and-see variables.
But Mack is more than just a good player on a great offense—he's the most transformative free-agent addition any team made this season. Besides opening up seams in the run game and helping keep quarterback Matt Ryan clean, Mack's leadership has been instrumental in setting the tone for a young offensive line that's struggled with execution and consistency over the past few seasons.
But more than that, Mack is a center: One of the few positions on the field that can consistently impact the game. Messing with the chemistry of the quarterback-center exchange means an increased chance of fumbling, multiplied by however-many offensive snaps will happen (and this game's expected to be a shootout).
More than that, though, the center calls all the pass protections. After spending all training camp, preseason, regular season, and playoffs with Mack reading defenses and directing his linemates, switching mid-game to backup Ben Garland could derail the Falcons' offensive momentum. A painful (and potentially gruesome) aggravation of Mack's injury could ruin the final chapter of the Falcons' storybook season.
The most dangerous scenario for the Falcons, strategically speaking, might be an in-between possibility: What if a taped-up, drugged-up Mack insists on staying out there even if he's not effective? How diminished will Mack have to be before head coach Dan Quinn feels compelled to bench his All-Pro?
Of course, the gritty Mack persevered through seven seasons in Cleveland before getting this shot at the Super Bowl. There's every possibility he pulls a T.O. and delivers a heroic performance, in which case all of Quinn's admitted "concern" about Mack's injuries will be happily unfounded.
But if Mack gets pushed around early, it could be a long night for everyone counting on him to pave the way for Atlanta's first Super Bowl win.