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NFL divisional playoff round: Eight players who could make impact after missing significant time with injuries

  • January 21, 2022

32 things we learned from 2021 NFL wild-card round

Packers CB Jaire Alexander

A bum shoulder has kept the Pro Bowler out since Week 4 and threatened to end his season prematurely. But Alexander is back on the active roster and listed as questionable for Saturday night’s date with the 49ers. That could mean guarding San Francisco’s most potent offensive weapon, All-Pro WR Deebo Samuel, one of the league’s most physical runners with the ball in his hands and someone who would give a limited corner all he could handle. Drawing 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk wouldn’t give much more relief to Alexander, but he can severely limit either of them … if physically up to the task.

Packers LT David Bakhtiari

Now slightly more than a year removed from an ACL tear, the two-time All-Pro – he only played 27 snaps this season, all in a brief Week 18 return – could be back to guard QB Aaron Rodgers’ blind side against (presumably) DE Nick Bosa and the Niners. However suiting up Saturday isn’t a given as Bakhtiari, who’s also questionable, has been limited in practice this week despite the benefit of the first-round bye following his 2021 season debut.

Packers RT Billy Turner

On the flip side of the line, Green Bay will get Turner back for the first time since he suffered a knee injury Dec. 12. He played in Bakhtiari’s stead last season, but Turner was exclusively used on the right side in his 13 2021 starts – which is still hugely important as Bosa, who must clear concussion protocol himself, will often line up opposite him.

Packers WR Randall Cobb

He required core muscle surgery, which has sidelined him since Nov. 28. But Cobb is raring to go, and that should be a comfort to Rodgers, who trusts the veteran more than any target at his disposal not named Davante Adams. Cobb had at least three receptions in five of his six most recent appearances and posted a season-high 95 yards in his final game before the operation. With WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling doubtful with a bad back, expect Cobb to be a factor – especially if Rodgers seeks quick relief from Bosa’s pursuit.

Packers OLB Za’Darius Smith

Both he and midseason replacement Whitney Mercilus (biceps tear) are trying to get back on the field, Smith out since Week 1 with an injured back. The Pack were middle of the pack with 39 sacks in the regular season, so it wouldn’t hurt to get a quality pass rusher back into the mix. A two-time Pro Bowler since signing with Green Bay in 2019, Smith had 26 combined sacks spanning the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The Packers have not yet activated either Smith nor Mercilus from injured reserve.

Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire

He’s missed eight games in his sophomore campaign, and a shoulder issue has kept CEH sidelined the past three weeks. Edwards-Helaire had 646 yards from scrimmage and six scores in 10 appearances but has shown the ability to take over a game and produced a steady 4.3 yards per carry. Given Sunday’s opponent, Buffalo, ranks first in total, scoring and pass defense, Kansas City might need to make hay on the ground – the Bills’ run D rated a middling 13th. A steady diet of Edwards-Helaire might also serve to keep QB Patrick Mahomes on the field and Josh Allen off of it in a contest that has shootout potential.

Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette

Tampa Bay’s lead runner has been out since Week 15 with a hamstring injury, not healthy enough to return in the wild-card round. However Fournette, who led the Bucs with 1,266 yards from scrimmage in 2021, practiced Thursday. His 69 receptions were also third best on the team – only Mike Evans (74) has more among still-available players. Fournette could also project as an important outlet for Brady, who might be under serious fire Sunday afternoon from Rams pass rushers Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd – especially if All-Pro RT Tristan Wirfs (ankle) is unavailable. But “Playoff Lenny” might have to prove to coach Bruce Arians first that the hammy will allow him to go full throttle.

Titans RB Derrick Henry

If he suits up Saturday, as expected – Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel says the team will decide Friday whether to activate King Henry – the odds could dramatically shift toward the AFC’s No. 1 seed in what would be the most important pre-kickoff development of the weekend. A broken foot limited Henry to eight games in 2021, yet the two-time rushing champ remarkably still ranked ninth in the league with 937 rushing yards – his clip of 117.1 per game topped the charts – despite missing more than half the season. Besides his production, Henry’s presence also typically forces an extra defender into the box and fuels play action that further opens up passing lanes for QB Ryan Tannehill. And even if Henry cedes some touches to backup D’Onta Foreman, who matched him with 4.3 yards per carry this season, Tennessee’s run game could do excessive damage to a Cincinnati Bengals defensive front ravaged by injuries – very possibly the key to this game. 

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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