In the opening week of the season, the St. Louis Rams lost Orlando Pace, one of the NFL's best offensive linemen.

In the next few weeks, most of their remaining offensive linemen went down, along with backups and backups to backups. Quarterback Marc Bulger and running back Steven Jackson also went out, and the Rams started 0-8.

So it was no surprise that after they won their first game two weeks ago with three offensive linemen who had been picked up off the street, coach Scott Linehan quipped: "We didn't have an O-lineman scheduled for surgery. That's an improvement."

The Rams are the classic example of how injuries kill in the modern NFL, where lack of depth is legislated — the salary cap doesn't allow teams to stockpile first-class reserves behind starters.

It wasn't that way before the advent of free agency and the salary cap in 1993, when teams that scouted and drafted well often had backups who could start elsewhere and could be plugged in if a starter went down.

Look at the 49ers, who from 1987-90 had Steve Young as a backup to Joe Montana, one future Hall of Famer caddying for another.

In 1990, the New York Giants lost quarterback Phil Simms and replaced him with Jeff Hostetler, who was in his sixth season with the team. In his early years, he was so starved for action he persuaded Bill Parcells to play him on special teams and as a spare wide receiver. But he was a good enough QB to step in for Simms, lead the team to the Super Bowl and then win it.

Hostetler went to the Raiders as a free agent in 1993, something he might have done earlier but couldn't under the rules at the time.

The same process worked for a lot of teams in the pre-free-agency era; the Redskins used to stockpile players on "injured reserve," winning Super Bowls after the 1983, 1987 and 1991 seasons with three different QBs, the last with Mark Rypien, one of those held in reserve until needed.

No one can do that these days.

When Jacksonville lost David Garrard for three games, it had to go with Quinn Gray, a third-string quarterback in his first two seasons. Gray started three games and won two, but Garrard's return last week was clearly a needed lift for the Jaguars' offense.

Houston started 2-0, then lost wide receiver Andre Johnson with a knee injury. The Texans were 2-5 during his absence, then beat New Orleans last week as he returned with six catches for 120 yards, including a 73-yard TD.

Even a team as good as Indianapolis can't afford to lose stars.

With Marvin Harrison playing the first six games, Peyton Manning had 11 TD passes and three interceptions and the Colts were unbeaten. Harrison has missed the past five, the Colts are 3-2 and Manning has thrown for eight touchdowns with nine interceptions.

Let's go the eternal grump, coach Tom Coughlin of the Giants.

Even with his team 6-2, the hypercritical New York media and the ESPN yappers kept pointing out the Giants started that way last season, then "collapsed" to lose six of eight. Trying to stick to his new "nice Tom" persona, Coughlin pointed out that the collapse came largely because Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, Luke Petitgout and Osi Umenyiora were hurt. As were others.

"Injuries, injuries," he kept saying. "That's what happened to us. There was no choke. It was just a lot of people getting hurt."

Coughlin's team was relatively injury free this season until last week, when it beat Detroit but lost linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka for the season with a broken leg. Running back Brandon Jacobs hurt his hamstring. The good news: RB might be New York's deepest position.

That's often a deciding factor — a team that's lucky has injuries at positions where the backups are capable.

But sometimes even that doesn't work.

Kansas City, for example, thought it was well-protected at running back behind Larry Johnson with Priest Holmes. So it traded Michael Bennett to Tampa Bay after the Bucs lost Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.

Then Johnson hurt his foot and the 34-year-old Holmes decided to retire. Now all the Chiefs have left is Kolby Smith, who wasn't even a regular in college.

The Colts are an example of a team with the worst kind of injury luck, having a bunch of players out at the same position, in this case at receiver.

Not only has Harrison been hurt, but so has rookie Anthony Gonzalez, the No. 3 wideout. Tight end Dallas Clark missed a loss in San Diego when Manning threw six interceptions, and last week Aaron Moorehead, the No. 4, went down with a back injury. So one of Peyton's primary targets is Craphonso Thorpe, who was on and off the practice squad for two seasons.

Injuries are a major factor in the downfall of last season's other Super Bowl team, Chicago.

Yes, inconsistency at quarterback and the failure of running back Cedric Benson have contributed. But so did the decimation of the secondary, led by what seems like the annual season-ending injury to safety Mike Brown, who might be — next to Brian Urlacher — the second-most important player on the defense. With cornerback Nathan Vasher missing seven games with a groin injury, the entire secondary had to be reshuffled. So a team that went 13-3 and allowed 255 points in 16 games last season is 4-6 and has allowed 217 points in 10.

New England, of course, is the exception.

The Patriots are an exception to everything these days, including the rule that every team is supposed to be close to .500. And even when they have had injuries, they've survived. Hey, they won a Super Bowl with Troy Brown, a wide receiver, as the nickel back in a secondary that had lost several real DBs with injuries.

Even through this unbeaten season, when they've been winning games by an average of 41-16, the Patriots haven't been injury free.

Richard Seymour, one of the NFL's best defensive linemen, was on the physically unable to perform list to start the season and has seen spot duty in the last three games. They've been without their top two running backs, Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris, for much of the season, and Morris is gone for the year.

But the Patriots were able to fill in with the versatile Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans, nominally a fullback. They filled the hole created by Seymour with the more-than-capable Jarvis Green, whom they've managed to keep for six years as a pass-rush specialist, presumably enticing him to stay with the promise of Super Bowl rings. As a starter, he's been solid against the run and is second on the team with four sacks.

The way this season is going for New England, it could probably afford to lose any player but Tom Brady and still cruise to the title.

Don't bet on Brady going down. Even though Bill Belichick has been listing him on the injury list every week for years with a "shoulder," Brady will make his 105th straight start Sunday.

DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams in the NFL based on current level of play.

1. New England (10-0). Can the Patriots be promoted to a higher league?


2. Green Bay (10-1). Mike McCarthy is coach of the year.

3. Dallas (10-1). Jason Campbell exposed the secondary last week.

4. Indianapolis (9-2). Have 10 days after Thanksgiving to get healthy.

5. Jacksonville (7-3). Injury factor makes Jags a threat to the Colts.

6. New York Giants (7-3) Defense rebounded from Dallas loss with solid game in Detroit.

27. Cincinnati (3-7). Playing like the old Bungles, pre-Marvin Lewis.

28. New York Jets (2-9). Two straight OT games, one a win. Sign of life?

29. Atlanta (3-8). Why did Bobby Petrino bench Harrington?

30. Oakland (2-8). Will Al Davis give Lane Kiffin the freedom to build?

31. San Francisco (2-8). Hired a new offensive "consultant," Ted Tollner. That's desperation.

32. Miami (0-10). Still might be a win on a schedule that includes the Jets, Bengals and Ravens.