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Justin Smith, Jay Cutler hurting: NFL Week 15 injury updates

Losing Justin Smith would be a huge blow to the 49ers defense. (John Pyle/CSM) Losing Justin Smith would be a huge blow to the 49ers defense. (John Pyle/CSM)

For a chunk of teams around the league, we've reached that tough spot in the year where they must decide if risk outweighs reward regarding most injuries. If a team is in the playoffs already, does it roll the dice looking for a better seed or shut it down and wait? And for the teams on the other side of the standings, well outside the postseason picture, is there anything to be gained from playing banged-up stars?

Several more players were added to the league's lengthy injury list during Sunday's action. SI.com injury expert Will Carroll picks through the news to provide his take on when those players will see the field again:

Justin Smith, DL, 49ers (elbow): Smith had to head to the locker room for evaluation after injuring his arm in the third quarter. He returned for just one play.

SI.com injury expert Will Carroll: Elbow injuries are tough on defenders. As we've seen with J.J. Watt, they can be played through. Smith injured his elbow early in the Sunday night game and, while the Niners are always very quiet about injuries, the extra quiet is ominous. Smith will have an MRI on Monday, but the key now is less what the injury actually is, but whether the Niners can find a way to get him back out there and reasonably functional. Anything above that and the Niners will be missing a key part of their defense.

Who takes his spot?: Ricky Jean-Francois came up with a key sack late with Smith sidelined, and he likely would start in Seattle if Smith cannot play. Most of New England's 28-point comeback Sunday night, though, came with Smith out of the game.

Jay Cutler, QB, Bears (neck): Cutler is dealing with multiple minor injuries, and he said after the game that he's not 100 percent -- though he qualified it with the comment that "no one is" at this time of year.

Carroll: Cutler played through his low-grade MCL sprain. He didn't lack much mobility, though the offensive line seemed bound and determined to test it. Lovie Smith's comments earlier in the week -- that Cutler was "good to go" -- were related not to Cutler not having an injury, but to Cutler having a 100 percent chance of playing. The misinterpretation is based on the common misunderstanding about how the NFL reports injuries -- it's about playing time, not severity.

Who takes his spot?: Jason Campbell could be pressed into duty in Week 16 or 17, both of which will being must-win games for the Bears if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers (ribs): Sanders suffered a cracked rib on a big hit early Sunday (he fumbled on the play).

Carroll: Another WR with a rib injury. I don't understand why more players -- especially Steelers -- don't see the success of advanced rib protectors like the ones worn by Ben Roethlisberger and Robert Griffin III and think "that might work for me!" WRs like to be light, but these new protectors are light and help reduce the risk of ending up with what Sanders said were "cracked ribs." If cracked = fractured, Sanders' season is done.

Who takes his spot?: Jerricho Cotchery saw more time as Pittsburgh's No. 3 wide receiver once Sanders headed to the sideline.

Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers (shoulder): Mathews broke his left collarbone Sunday, ending his season. He broke his right collarbone during the preseason.

Carroll: Mathews was injured on a play that looked very similar to how he broke the right one in preseason. Mathews' season in between the fractures was a bit disappointing, as was the Chargers' campaign, but he did show talent and the ability to recover from minor injuries, something in question previously.

Who takes his spot?: Jackie Battle or Curtis Brinkley will assume the starting running back role. For Mathews, 2012 goes down as a massively disappointing season.

Brian Robison, DE, Vikings (shoulder): Robison missed the final three quarters Sunday after injuring his shoulder. He was diagnosed with a sprained AC joint.

Carroll: Robison's sprain is said to be significant. The Vikings had him in a sling by the end of the game and scans Monday will tell them what internal damage is there. Anything significant is likely to take him out for the rest of the season.

Who takes his spot?: Everson Griffen filled in during Minnesota's win over the Rams. He would start in Week 16 at Houston, if need be.

Harvey Dahl, G, Rams (arm): Dahl may have suffered a torn biceps Sunday -- the same injury that Terrell Suggs is trying to play through.

Carroll: There seems to be a run on torn biceps, but there's little commonality that explains this aside from random chance. Dahl will have surgery and should be fine to return next season.

Who takes his spot?: Shelley Smith stepped in for Dahl Sunday. Either he or Chris Williams (inactive in Week 15) may be pressed into a couple of starts.

Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Patriots (knee): Dennard's knee appeared to hyperextend on a first-half play. He did not return.

Carroll: Seeing Dennard on the bike at the end of the game is a positive. Whatever the knee injury is that took him out of Sunday's loss, it wasn't clearly severe enough to send him to the locker room. The Pats will have scans on his knee today, but the hope is that the injury isn't severe enough to take him out long term. With the Pats locked into the playoffs but fighting for the bye, it is unclear how Bill Belichick will deal with his normal pattern of resting starters late in the season.

Who takes his spot?: Kyle Arrington took Dennard's place at corner, but the Patriots do not have a ton of depth at that spot.

Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens (head): Smith suffered a concussion when he slammed his head on the turf after leaping for a pass.

Carroll: Smith was up by the time replay had wiped away his catch, heading to the locker room for testing. He didn't return, with a concussion diagnosis ending his day. He'll follow the NFL protocol and will return as soon as he's passed.

Who takes his spot?: Jacoby Jones would be in line for more playing time, but David Reed also saw extended action Sunday once Smith left.

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