Key Players Who Could Return from Injury to Impact NFL Playoff Races

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 16, 2017

Key Players Who Could Return from Injury to Impact NFL Playoff Races

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    Ronald Darby could give a huge boost to the first-place Eagles.
    Ronald Darby could give a huge boost to the first-place Eagles.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    In just a few days, we'll be preparing for Thanksgiving football, bye weeks will be history, and winter will officially be coming.

    In other words, NFL playoff races are shaping up. And with 20 of the league's 32 teams within one win of a playoff spot as we enter Week 11, we're in for something wild. 

    A lot can impact those races, including injuries. Of course, significant injuries have already played a huge role in determining the shape of the races, and that should continue to be the case. But what about those recovering from injury? 

    Here's a look at 14 key players from 11 different teams who could change playoff races if and when they're able to return to action. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Bills CB E.J. Gaines: The steady starter has missed three consecutive games due to a hamstring injury, but he has been practicing and should be ready to return soon. 

    Panthers C Ryan Kalil: The five-time Pro Bowler has participated in just two games this year and remains sidelined with a neck injury. Replacement Tyler Larsen has done a good job, but they could use Kalil's experience. 

    Redskins TE Jordan Reed: The Redskins have been hammered by injuries on both sides of the ball, but they're slowly getting healthier. Reed, who has missed three games this year and is dealing with a hamstring injury, is one of the league's most dangerous tight ends when healthy. 

    Seahawks G Luke Joeckel: That Seattle line could use all the help it can get, especially with new left tackle Duane Brown hurting. Joeckel has been out since undergoing knee surgery in October. 

Carolina Panthers TE Greg Olsen

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It's easy to forget that just 21 months ago, the Carolina Panthers were a Super Bowl team with an MVP quarterback. But they reminded us they might still have that in them with a dominant Week 10 victory over the Miami Dolphins, especially considering the performance Cam Newton put together (four touchdowns, no turnovers and a 120.4 passer rating) despite the continued absence of Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen

    The Panthers remain very much in contention at 7-3, but their offense still ranks in the middle of the pack. That unit, which was held to 20 or fewer points in its previous three games before exploding for 45 against the Dolphins, has room to improve. And getting Olsen back from the fractured right foot that has cost him eight games could be just what the doctor ordered. 

    We're talking about a veteran who had caught at least 75 passes for at least 1,000 yards in three consecutive years prior to 2017. No tight end in football was close to as productive as Olsen during that stretch.

    According to Steve Reed of the Associated Press, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera says the plan is for the 32-year-old to return from injured reserve after Carolina's Week 11 bye. And the aforementioned stats highlight why his return could put the Panthers over the top in their battle with the New Orleans Saints et al. for playoff positioning. 

Minnesota Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Returning by Week 12 would give Olsen a solid number of live reps before Carolina's crucial Week 14 matchup with the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings, but it's anyone's guess who will be quarterbacking the Vikes at that point in time. 

    Fourteen months after suffering a devastating knee injury, Teddy Bridgewater is finally back. But he's yet to take any regular-season snaps because right now the Vikings are riding a five-game winning streak with journeyman Case Keenum under center. 

    It's hard to imagine Keenum's leash is long, though, because Bridgewater is likely still considered the future of the franchise. There's little doubt he has a higher ceiling than Keenum, who has suited up for four teams in as many years.

    Still, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Keenum nearly broke with a pair of interceptions against the Washington Redskins in Week 10, but he arguably made up for that with four touchdown passes in an impressive victory over a desperate NFC playoff contender. 

    Are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? If it does, Bridgewater could return and give the Vikings some extra juice as they try to fend off the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North race. 

Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    But the Packers might not be capable of challenging the Vikings with or without Bridgewater unless their own regular starting quarterback makes a miraculous recovery in the next few weeks. 

    Most of us rightly wrote off the Packers the moment future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken right collarbone in Week 6, but a well-timed bye and a season-saving road victory over the division rival Chicago Bears have them hanging around at 5-4. 

    They're still probably toast without Rodgers, but it's important to note we have no proof the 33-year-old isn't a superhero, and he does remain eligible to return as early as Week 15. He hasn't been officially ruled out yet, and if the Packers remain in contention, it wouldn't be a total shock if he found a way to take the field late in the regular season. 

    And if that happens, all bets are off. 

Philadelphia Eagles CB Ronald Darby

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Even the heavyweights stand to benefit from reinforcements as the 2017 regular season reaches its home stretch. Take the Philadelphia Eagles, who own the NFL's best record at 8-1 but have been getting by without their most talented cornerback, Ronald Darby. 

    The third-year, second-round pick was supposed to bolster a vulnerable Eagles secondary when the team acquired him from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick in August, but Darby has been out ever since dislocating his right ankle in a Week 1 victory over the Redskins. 

    It feels as though we've been led to believe Darby has been on the brink of returning for several weeks now, and there's still no guarantee he'll be active when the Eagles return from their bye in Week 11. 

    Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice noted on Twitter this week that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was "downplaying" the "notion" the 23-year-old would finally be back for the Dallas game.

    When he does return, his presence could give a shot in the arm to a team that is trying to run away with the NFC's top playoff seed but possesses the league's 26th-ranked pass defense. 

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee and OT Tyron Smith

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Meanwhile, the Cowboys are hoping several key players can return in time to save their season. 

    Superstar running back Ezekiel Elliott has withdrawn his appeal and will miss the next five weeks due to suspension, so his situation is finally clear. But there's less clarity regarding injured veterans Sean Lee and Tyron Smith, both of whom should be considered among the five most important players on the roster (along with Elliott, quarterback Dak Prescott and defensive end Demarcus Lawrence). 

    Lee, an All-Pro linebacker, suffered a hamstring injury in a Week 10 blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons. That exacerbated the Cowboys' problems on a day when they were already without Elliott and Smith, their All-Pro left tackle who was inactive due to a back injury. 

    Lee leads the team by a wide margin with 52 tackles, which is incredible considering he's missed two games and most of a third. According to Pro Football Focus, his run-stop percentage of 11.9 is tops among 4-3 outside linebackers. 

    Smith has been a Pro Bowler each of the last four years, and his replacement last week, Chaz Green, was responsible for four sacks, a hit and three hurries in a blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons, per PFF.

    Without those two, the Cowboys are likely to fall off a cliff before Elliott is eligible to return. And unfortunately for America's Team, there's no guarantee either returns before that happens.

    Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News noted this week that head coach Jason Garrett is still unsure whether Smith will be back for a crucial Week 11 matchup with the division-rival Eagles, while George also reported the team is preparing to be without Lee for three games. 

    Considering the Cowboys are already among several teams trying to play catchup by chasing the Panthers and Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card race and the Eagles in the NFC East, that's problematic. 

Seattle Seahawks CB DeShawn Shead

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Yes, the Seahawks continue to hold down one of those two wild-card spots and are just a game back of the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams. But Seattle was dealt a huge blow when shutdown cornerback Richard Sherman went down with a ruptured right Achilles tendon in Week 10.

    That leaves Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary without each of its top corners from 2016, as veteran DeShawn Shead has been out all season with the knee injury he suffered in last year's playoffs. But there's a chance Shead could come back in order to limit the damage stemming from Sherman's injury. 

    The Seahawks have until next Tuesday to take Shead off the physically unable to perform list, so it's not a good sign that he doesn't appear to be ready yet. But Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told ESPN 710 in Seattle this week that Shead is "doing everything he possibly can" to get back.

    "He's in great shape," added Carroll, per ESPN.com's Brady Henderson. "If you watch him work out, he can run forever, he can do everything, but he's just not quite back full yet where he has all the movement that he needs, the extension that he needs. So until that's safe, he's still working at it. He's doing everything he can."

Baltimore Ravens RB Danny Woodhead

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    AFC teams also have injured key players who could soon be back in time to make dents in the playoff race, starting with Baltimore, where veteran Ravens running back Danny Woodhead might be on the verge of returning from a hamstring injury. 

    That injury landed him on injured reserve one week into the season, which was a shame for the Ravens because the versatile 32-year-old had 37 yards on just four touches before getting hurt a mere six snaps into his season. 

    It looked as though he was going to live up to his three-year, $8.8 million contract with a big year in the passing game, which is exactly what the Ravens needed. In fact, it's exactly what they continue to need. They're hanging around in the AFC wild-card race with a 4-5 record, despite the fact their passing offense ranks dead last in the NFL.

    Struggling quarterback Joe Flacco is desperate for a safety valve, and Woodhead might be the solution. He's played in just three games the last two years, but he caught 80 passes for 755 yards and six touchdowns with the San Diego Chargers in 2015. And now ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley reports that he's expected to return from injured reserve in Week 11. 

Jacksonville Jaguars WR Dede Westbrook

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars will likely be one of the teams trying to stave off Baltimore and others in order to capture a wild-card spot. They also remain right there with the Tennessee Titans atop the AFC South. But with Allen Robinson out for the year due to a torn ACL and Allen Hurns dealing with an ankle injury, quarterback Blake Bortles could use a weapons boost. 

    Enter Dede Westbrook? 

    The rookie wide receiver put on a show with 13 catches for 288 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason before falling victim to a core muscle injury just prior to the start of the regular season. But he's resumed practice, and it looks as though he'll come off injured reserve any minute now. 

    "Dede is ready to come back," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said this week, per Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. "Hopefully he has a good week and he’s ready to go."

    That's great news for the Jags, because Westbrook is a flashy home run hitter with the ability to stretch out opposing defenses, making life even easier on Bortles and rookie running back Leonard Fournette. 

    Put simply, the fourth-round pick will likely make the Jaguars better right away, which could help put them over the top in their quest to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. 

New England Patriots WR Chris Hogan

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The case of the New England Patriots and wide receiver Chris Hogan is a little different. That's because the Pats didn't miss a beat without Hogan in the lineup when they crushed the Denver Broncos 41-16 at Mile High in Week 10. They remain the clear-cut team to beat in the AFC despite the absence of both Hogan and top 2016 receiver Julian Edelman, and Hogan has only missed one game. 

    Still, Hogan's shoulder injury is one to watch because Edelman (torn ACL) isn't coming back, superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski is injury-prone, and quarterback Tom Brady has leaned quite heavily on Hogan when he hasn't had those guys the last couple of years. 

    The 29-year-old enjoyed a breakout 2016 campaign with Gronk sidelined the majority of the year. He caught 17 passes for 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the playoffs, and he caught at least four passes for at least 60 yards in six of his first eight games in 2017. 

    But he hasn't been practicing this week and looks as though he'll be a long shot to suit up Sunday against the Oakland Raiders at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Hogan's status in the weeks to come could have an impact on New England's quest to once again secure the top seed in the AFC.