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

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorNovember 16, 2018

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

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    Although the NFL trade deadline took place on October 30, some NFL teams are getting reinforcements as the league enters its stretch run.

    Of note, the New Orleans Saints acquired free-agent wide receiver Brandon Marshall, while the Atlanta Falcons picked up ex-Oakland Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin.

    However, some teams will receive internal help as they welcome back players who have missed time with injuries.

    We'll take a look at a few who can make significant impacts as the league enters the stretch run.


Atlanta Falcons LB Deion Jones

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    Injuries have hit the Atlanta Falcons defense hard.

    Safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen suffered season-ending ailments in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively.

    Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was out for two games, and the team allowed 70 total points in his absence.

    Jarrett is back, though, and linebacker Deion Jones will be soon too.

    Jones suffered a Week 1 foot injury and has been on injured reserve nearly all season. The Falcons defense has struggled without him and others on the field, as the team has allowed 28.2 points per game, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league.

    However, Jones told reporters that he is "close" to returning. He has been activated from the injured reserve list and put in a limited practice on Wednesday.

    A Pro Bowler last season, Jones registered 138 tackles (91 solo) and three interceptions. With him leading the defense, the Falcons finished eighth in fewest points allowed, so his presence is critical for Atlanta's defensive success moving forward.

    Right now, the 4-5 Falcons are within striking distance of the 5-3-1 Minnesota Vikings for the final wild-card spot. They can't afford to lose more than a game or two the rest of the way, but Jones can help the Falcons make a run.

Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green

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    Arguably the most obvious member of this list, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is the best player on his team and one of the game's greatest wideouts this decade. He's caught 45 passes for 687 yards and six touchdowns this season in just eight games.

    However, the team doesn't have much pass-catching depth outside Green. Tyler Boyd has been phenomenal (52 catches, 685 yards, five touchdowns), but no one else has more than 21 catches or 207 receiving yards.

    The Bengals defense is also wilting right now, as they've allowed 39.5 points per game in their last four outings. Unless they undergo a significant turnaround, Cincinnati may have to win some shootouts in order to make the playoffs. Right now, the 5-4 Bengals have a tenuous hold on the final wild-card spot.

    Adam Schefter of ESPN reported Sunday that "a December return is looking increasingly likely" for Green, although head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters on Wednesday that he hoped to have him back for Sunday's game at the Baltimore Ravens.

    The sooner the team can have Green back, the better, as it's hard seeing the Bengals making the playoffs without him.

Houston Texans: Coutee, Foreman, Cunningham, Colvin, Joseph, Hal

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    The Houston Texans' six-game win streak after starting 0-3 is impressive enough, but it's even more remarkable considering how many injuries the team has suffered.

    Take a look at the current injury list on Pro Football Reference. Many key names are on there, including linebacker Zach Cunningham (the team's leader in tackles per game), wideout Keke Coutee (21 catches for 196 yards in four games), running back D'Onta Foreman (4.2 yards per carry last year) and cornerbacks Aaron Colvin, Jonathan Joseph and Andre Hal.

    Houston should be getting some reinforcements soon, as everyone on that list outside Foreman put in limited practices on Wednesday, per the team website.

    Although losing wideout Will Fuller V (32 passes, 503 yards and four touchdowns in five games) to a season-ending torn ACL hurts, those six aforementioned players could help the Texans hold off the rest of the AFC South.

    At 6-3, the Texans need to keep their foot on the gas with the 5-4 Tennessee Titans and 4-5 Indianapolis Colts hot on their heels. They have an outside shot at a top-two AFC playoff seed as well.

Los Angeles Rams CB Aqib Talib

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    The Los Angeles Rams have allowed 7.9 adjusted passing yards per attempt, which is the eighth-worst mark in the league.

    Although it's possible L.A.'s offense just blows everyone out of the water en route to a Super Bowl title, the pass defense may prove problematic if the Rams face the New Orleans Saints again in the playoffs.

    The last time the two teams met, the Saints beat the Rams, 45-35, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as quarterback Drew Brees threw for 346 yards and four touchdowns.

    Ideally, the Rams will want home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs to avoid playing the high-flying Saints in New Orleans again, but they may need to shore up the pass defense to accomplish that feat.

    In other words, the Rams need cornerback Aqib Talib back as quickly as possible.

    Talib suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 and has missed seven games since then. He told NFL Network (h/t Alden Gonzalez of that he would be "full speed" for a Week 13 return against the Detroit Lions. Of course, the Rams have to clear him first, but that's an encouraging remark as the team enters the stretch run.

    The team could really use him for Week 14 at the Chicago Bears and Week 15 versus the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. With him, the Rams certainly have a better shot taking those games. Without him, both will be taller orders.

Los Angeles Chargers EDGE Joey Bosa

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    Somehow, the Los Angeles Chargers have gone 7-2 without their best defensive player in edge-rusher Joey Bosa, who has amassed 23.0 sacks over his two-year career.

    Bosa has been sidelined with a foot injury all season, but he practiced in a limited capacity on Wednesday.

    That doesn't necessarily foreshadow a Sunday return against the Denver Broncos, but the key is whether Bosa gets up to speed for a monster stretch from Weeks 13-15 in which they play three teams currently in the playoff picture (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs).

    The Chargers are just 1.5 games back of the Chiefs for the AFC West lead, although Kansas City has the head-to-head tiebreaker right now. In the event the Bolts overtake them, a win over the Steelers would be huge, as they are one of a handful of teams fighting for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.

    The Bolts are clear favorites in their next two games (home matchups versus the Broncos and Arizona Cardinals, who have five combined wins).

    But the team needs Bosa for that aforementioned stretch. If he's good to go, he could be the difference between a wild-card berth and a potential No. 1 seed.

New Orleans Saints DE Marcus Davenport

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    Saints rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport has amassed four sacks in his last five games, but he's been out for two weeks and counting with a toe injury. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network in an October 31 tweet, Davenport was expected "to miss about a month."

    The latest news regarding Davenport is that he sat Wednesday's practice leading up to Sunday's game versus the Philadelphia Eagles.

    The Saints don't get any breaks on their schedule the rest of the way. The "easiest" game may be a matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road, but the Bucs handed the Saints their lone loss this season in a 48-40 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They can go blow for blow with the explosive New Orleans offense.

    The key is whether Davenport can return and be 100 percent for the team's three-game closing stretch, which features two matchups with the 6-3 Carolina Panthers and 6-2-1 Steelers. That trio of games could be the difference between an NFC South title (and potential No. 1 seed) and a wild-card berth (if the Panthers manage to jump over New Orleans in the division standings).

    The Saints pass rush isn't particularly effective (just 21 sacks), so the team needs a healthy Davenport to put some pressure on talented quarterbacks like the Panthers' Cam Newton or the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.

Washington Redskins: WR Jamison Crowder, RB Chris Thompson, OT Trent Williams

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    No NFL offense has suffered more significant injuries than that of Washington, who has lost three Week 1 starters (guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao and wideout Paul Richardson Jr.) for the season.

    Rookie running back Derrius Guice suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, and offensive tackle Trent Williams (thumb), running back Chris Thompson (ribs) and wideout Jamison Crowder (ankle) have missed a combined 11 games.

    The season is not lost for that trio, although the immediate future doesn't look promising.

    Per head coach Jay Gruden, a Monday MRI for Crowder revealed no further damage to his ankle. Gruden expects him back soon, although there is no definitive timetable for his return.

    There isn't one for Thompson either, who Gruden said will likely be out for Sunday's game with the Texans. Williams has already been declared out.

    The good news is that none of these players have been placed on injured reserve, so clearly there's hope for some returns.

    The Skins need them, as they've averaged just 19.6 points per game (27th in the league). A Thanksgiving matchup with the Dallas Cowboys may be too soon, but ideally they'd be back in time for the first of two matchups with the Eagles on Sunday, December 2.

    Without them, the Eagles (and Cowboys) could make a late charge for the NFC East even though the 6-3 Skins are two games ahead of those 4-5 squads.