Wednesday December 21st, 2011

Josh McCown will be the Bears' new starter this weekend. (Frank Bolich/Reuters)

The NFL season has been rife with critical injuries, forcing former unknowns like Tyler Palko, Caleb Hanie and T.J. Yates into their teams' starting lineup.

Here's a quick peek at a few players who find themselves in surprisingly important spots heading into Week 16:

• Josh McCown, QB, Bears: The Bears announced Wednesday that they'll turn from Hanie to McCown in a desperate attempt to save their season. McCown hasn't started a game since 2007 -- a 49-11 loss to Jacksonville as a member of the Raiders -- and his first starting gig in 2011 comes at Green Bay on Christmas night. Good luck, Josh.

Chicago went 0-4 after Hanie took over at QB for an injured Jay Cutler. Unless McCown can rally the Bears to a 2-0 finish, and Chicago can get some help, their season will end in Week 17.

• Chauncey Washington/Sammy Morris, RB, Cowboys: In the topsy-turvy (read: pretty terrible) NFC East, the Cowboys are back on top and could wrap things up Saturday. But the Cowboys' backfield situation is in shambles heading into a Week 16 showdown with resurgent Philadelphia. Dallas placed DeMarco Murray on injured reserve following Week 14, and may be down Felix Jones this weekend because of a hamstring injury.

That would leave Dallas with Morris and Washington, neither of whom was on the team two weeks ago.

John Wendling, S, Lions: The Lions are one win from their first playoff berth in more than a decade, but they've made that run in spite of an increasingly wounded secondary. Dynamic third-year safety Louis Delmas injured his knee on Thanksgiving, and his fill-in, Chris Harris, went down with a concussion against Oakland last Sunday. If neither can go Saturday, Wendling, a special-teams star with one career start, would have some huge responsibility against San Diego's scorching offense.

• Charlie Batch, QB, Steelers: Batch is to the NFL what Arthur Rhodes is to MLB -- somehow, no matter their age, these guys keep landing jobs, year after year. Batch's run looked like it might be up in Pittsburgh before the regular year even started, but then Byron Leftwich suffered a season-ending injury, leaving Batch as Ben Roethlisberger's primary backup. Pittsburgh sounds like it will shut a hobbling Big Ben down this week against St. Louis, which would put Batch under center. What's at stake in the Steelers' final two games? Only the AFC North title and a possible first-round playoff bye.

Mark Anderson, OLB/DE, Patriots: The 28-year-old Anderson has seen action in all 14 New England games this season, but he's about to be a lot bigger part of the action. The reeling Patriots' defense lost star pass-rusher Andre Carter for the season to a torn quad, bumping Anderson up the depth chart. Carter had 10 sacks to Anderson's nine, so the drop-off may not be huge there, but Carter is much better against the run.

Lance Ball, RB, Broncos: Ball may have to make his first career start Sunday in Buffalo, as Denver tries to clinch the AFC West crown. The Broncos lost Knowshon Moreno to a hamstring injury in November, and Willis McGahee has been hurt off and on since taking over as the No. 1 back. He hobbled off last week in the Broncos' loss to New England, and has been limited this week.

Denver's offense lives and dies with its run game, so Tim Tebow needs someone capable next to him in the backfield.

Jared Gaither, T, Chargers: Of all the surprising stories in the NFL this season, Gaither has quietly risen the charts. The Ravens dropped Gaither on injured reserve in 2010, then let him hit free agency this past offseason. He landed in Kansas City, where he struggled to carve out playing time and was waived in late November. That's when San Diego jumped in and claimed him -- and neither party has looked back. Gaither has not allowed a sack in three starts with the Chargers, single-handedly shoring up a suspect offensive line. With Gaither protecting Philip Rivers' blindside, San Diego has stormed back into the playoff picture.

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