Robert McClain, AJ McCarron, and the Misfit Back-Ups in This Year’s NFL Playoffs

Can Charcandrick West help the Chiefs to their first playoff win since 1993.
Can Charcandrick West help the Chiefs to their first playoff win since 1993.Peter Aiken / Getty Images

Imagine sitting at your desk, spaced out and playing Words With Friends (or maybe reading this article) like you usually do, when all of a sudden your boss goes down hard. Knee injury. Done for the rest of the season. Now you're in charge. Could you handle it? Such is life as an NFL backup. In a matter of seconds — with the crack of a broken bone or the snap of a ruptured tendon — benchwarmers are thrust into the spotlight.

Through the years, second-string folk heroes like Frank Reich and Jeff Hostetler and Kurt Warner have all risen to the challenge and excelled in the NFL playoffs. As the 2016 postseason kicks off, a new crop of backups, and not just QBs, will get a chance to show us what they've got. Here's a look at some reserves-turned-starters who could make a significant impact in the NFL playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals will attempt to replace Tyrann Mathieu at safety with the 23-year-old Tony Jefferson, the team's No. 3 safety. Filling Mathieu's shoes will fall on a few different players, but the majority of the Honey Badger's playing time will likely fall to Jefferson, who will attempt to make up for the loss of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate that had 89 tackles, five interceptions, one forced fumble, one sack and 16 passes defensed this season. Jefferson's no slouch though. As a rookie, he basically made the team after making two INTs and recording five tackles in a preseason game against Dallas.


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Houston Texans
Standout LT Duane Brown tore his quad in the last game of the regular season and is out for the playoffs. His replacement is Chris Clark, who cut his teeth on the Denver Broncos line before he was traded to Houston. "For me, it's not about filling his shoes," Clark said. "It's about allowing me to get a chance to showcase what I can do and not being the weakest link knowing these guys are counting on me to do a certain job." The last time Clark was asked to fill in for a starter, he protected Peyton Manning's blind side all the way to the Super Bowl.

Kansas City Chiefs
Charcandrick West, a 23-year-old who was an undrafted free agent last year, has been starting at running back since Jamaal Charles went down with a season-ending knee injury in October. West, a converted cornerback, is a versatile scatback who has been hot and cold. Late in the season, Spencer Ware emerged as another capable runner. But no matter who's carried the ball, Kansas City has been unstoppable. They've won 10 straight going into the playoffs without their franchise runner.

Pittsburgh Steelers
DeAngelo Williams, a 32-year-old warhorse, has been the Pittsburgh starter since do-it-all back Le'Veon Bell went down for the season in Week 8. Williams finished fourth in the AFC in rushing with 907 yards, but he rolled his ankle in the season finale and he's iffy for the first round of the playoffs. If Williams can't go, the Steelers may turn to Fitzgerald Toussaint, a 25-year-old Michigan product with an awesome name, a ton of character, 54 career rushing yards, but very, very little playoff experience.


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Cincinnati Bengals
The greatest hope of the Bengals putting an end to one of the worst one-and-done streaks in NFL playoff history rides on the right arm of 25-year-old AJ McCarron. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, the same year McCarron was born. He'll start in place of the injured Andy Dalton against the rival Steelers. McCarron has some big-game experience coming out of Alabama, but his then-girlfriend Katherine Webb attracted more attention than he did when he won his second national title in the 2013 BCS Championship Game in Miami. That's exactly the guy you want to end a 25-year playoff losing streak, right?

Denver Broncos
The biggest question in football going into the playoffs was if Peyton Manning was going to be holding a clipboard while understudy Brock Osweiler started his first playoff game. Well, Manning was officially named the starter, but there's an off-chance the backup gets the call at some point if Manning gets hurt or just stinks up the joint. Osweiler spelled Manning during the regular season and didn't wilt in his first extended pro action. He was impressive enough, and Manning was bad enough before getting hurt, that the Broncos were seriously considering a true changing of the guard. Stay tuned to see if Manning gets a quick hook.

Carolina Panthers
Cornerback Robert McClain spent most of the NFL season at home drawing and painting. He was cut by the Patriots in September and was looking for work for months before Panthers secondary stars Bené Benwikere and Charles Tillman got hurt. Now McClain is a starter for Carolina, where he'll be asked to contribute to finishing Cam Netwon's masterpiece season alongside Odell Beckham antagonist Josh Norman.

"He was on his couch — whatever they say — for a number of weeks, but he kept himself ready," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. In limited action to close out the regular season, McClain, a seventh-round pick out of UConn, was sharp. He recorded seven tackles and had an interception in less than a half of football against Tampa.


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Minnesota Vikings
The second tight end on an NFL team is essentially an extra offensive lineman, responsible for blocking and opening holes. When your primary runner is Adrian Peterson, the backup TE is a very important role. So Mycole Pruitt will have an opportunity to open some of those holes in the playoffs because Minnesota's top blocking TE Rhett Ellison went down with a knee injury in Week 17. Pruitt, a rookie fifth-round draft pick, will play bodyguard for the NFL's top rusher, starting with the sub-zero opener against Seattle.

NFL injuries were down this year, but a ton of big-name guys still went down for significant stretches, giving their backups an opportunity to play. Some will continue to get burn in the playoffs, while other benchwarmers will get baptized during the most intense weeks of the football season, continuing to prove that some of the most important players on an NFL team are the replacements. Which of these guys will rise to the challenge?

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