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.