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(AP) - Every year in the NFL, examples abound of players in prominent roles in December who were barely noticeable in September.
Injuries often create opportunities. Incumbent ineffectiveness can elevate little-used backups to unquestioned starter status. Rookies make progress with their grasp of the schemes, convincing coaches they're ready for increased action. Fantasy football leagues can be won and lost all the time with these late bloomers.
Here are six of those players who in the first quarter of the season were well below the national radar, but are in the spotlight for the final stretch, with their teams either pushing for the playoffs or serving as spoilers for others:
CORDARRELLE PATTERSON: The Minnesota Vikings were never in the playoffs chase this year. For a team that lost four times and tied once when it still led with 52 seconds or fewer left in those five games, though, perhaps an earlier commitment to involve the fleet-footed first-round draft pick would've made a difference in their record.
Patterson, with only one major-college season at Tennessee, needed time to develop his route-running skills and grasp of the offense. His speed was apparent from the start: kickoff returns for touchdowns in the second and seventh games. He leads the league with a 33.3-yards-per-return average.
But his impact has broadened. He played 76 percent of the snaps on Sunday at Baltimore and turned a screen pass into a 79-yard touchdown. The week before against Chicago, he lined up in the backfield for a 33-yard scamper for a score. In the first half of the season, Patterson was typically on the field for one-quarter of the plays.
NICK FOLES: Michael Vick beat out Foles in training camp in Philadelphia to be the quarterback in new coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense, but Foles _ a third-round draft pick in 2012 who went 1-5 as a fill-in starter as a rookie _ got another chance when Vick hurt his hamstring on Oct. 6. Vick's re-injury gave Foles yet another opportunity, and on Nov. 3 he produced that life-changing performance, 407 yards and a whopping seven touchdowns passing. The job, naturally, has been his since then for the NFC East-leading Eagles, who have won five straight games.
BOBBY RAINEY: Doug Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie Pro Bowl pick for Tampa Bay. He's done for the year because of a shoulder injury. Mike James was next for the Buccaneers, and he broke his ankle. So there was Rainey, an undrafted former practice squad player out of Western Kentucky, becoming the featured back on a Monday night game against Miami. This is his third team this season.
Over the last five weeks, Rainey has 433 yards and four touchdowns rushing with a 4.6-yards-per-attempt average, plus a scoring reception.
JON BOSTIC AND KHASEEM GREENE: The Chicago Bears have managed to tie for first place in the NFC North with three games to go despite a litany of key injuries on defense, including to linebackers D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs. Bostic and Greene, both rookies, have been forced into the starting lineup for the second half of the season, trying to learn on the job and help keep a once-feared unit afloat. Success has been limited, though. The Bears are allowing an average of 157 yards rushing per game, more than 20 more than the next-closest team.
MATT FLYNN: In less than two years since Green Bay let Flynn leave as a free agent, he has been with four more teams. One of them, of course, is the Packers, who desperately picked him up last month shortly after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. Flynn made one start for Oakland and never played for Buffalo.
For Green Bay, results have been mixed, but Flynn helped the Packers post their first post-Rodgers-injury victory last week, albeit by one point at home against reeling Atlanta. A win is a win, though, and Flynn completed 75 percent of his passes for 258 yards.
CHRIS CLARK: Two-time All-Pro Ryan Clady's season-ending foot injury in the second game of the season for Denver was not what Peyton Manning was hoping for, particularly after starting center Dan Koppen went down during training camp. Manning was sacked and stripped of the ball in three straight games midseason, and his offensive line has taken some heat. But his blindside protector, a 28-year-old journeyman whose only prior starting experience was during a handful of contests in 2011, has held up well.
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