The Baltimore Ravens faced a fourth-and-7 at the Miami Dolphins’ 35-yard line on Sunday, a situation when quarterback Lamar Jackson would normally look for Mark Andrews.

But with the tight end sidelined after undergoing left ankle surgery on Nov. 21, Jackson set his sights on Andrews’ backup. Jackson waited for Isaiah Likely on a crossing pattern, and Likely plucked Jackson’s pass out of the air with his left hand and ran for a touchdown in a 56-19 win to clinch the AFC’s top seed.

A fourth-round pick from a year ago, Likely has become the latest playmaker for the team with the NFL’s best record. In Baltimore’s five games without Andrews, Likely has totaled 19 catches for 291 yards and four touchdowns. Only Detroit’s Sam LaPorta has scored more touchdowns (five) at the tight end position over that span.

“It’s funny, the guys that see [Likely] in practice every day are kind of like, ‘Hey, what have you been waiting for?,'” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week. “He’s been that way since he got here — making those kinds of plays.

“But yes, just the experience — the game-playing experience — I think has really kind of gotten to the point where he’s been able to take it [and] get the confidence out there and say, ‘Hey, I can really do this in big games.'”

Likely’s not the only one. Just about every team in playoff contention has had at least one player who stepped into a void created by injury and played above expectations, or just played his way into the starting lineup. Here’s a look at key replacements, other than quarterbacks, who have impacted this season’s playoff race. Each is written by the ESPN reporter covering that team.

Baltimore Ravens

Isaiah Likely, TE; Geno Stone, S

How they stepped in: Likely took over after tight end Mark Andrews suffered an ankle injury on Nov. 16 and underwent surgery. The Ravens haven’t ruled out Andrews for the playoffs, but he presumably wouldn’t be back until later in the postseason.

Stone started six games for safety Marcus Williams when Williams dealt with pectoral and then hamstring injuries. On Sunday, Stone stepped into the lineup again when safety Kyle Hamilton was inactive with a knee injury.

Impact: Much more elusive than the powerful Andrews, Likely has become one of Jackson’s best big-play targets. In Baltimore’s five games without Andrews, Likely has scored a touchdown in three of them, including the first multi-touchdown game of his career on Sunday. Over that same span, Likely is averaging 15.3 yards per catch. Only San Francisco’s George Kittle has a higher average (16.9) among tight ends.

After one interception in his first three seasons, Stone has been a ball magnet, picking off seven passes this season. He ranks second in the NFL behind Dallas’ DaRon Bland. It’s also tied for the fourth-most by a Ravens player in a single season. Stone is a big reason why Baltimore has the No. 6 pass defense in the league, allowing 195.6 yards per game. — Jamison Hensley

Rasul Douglas, CB

How he stepped in: Cornerback Tre’Davious White tore his right Achilles in the team’s Week 4 win over the Dolphins with the 2019 All-Pro suffering a season-ending injury for the second time in three seasons. Right before the Oct. 31 trade deadline, the Bills traded a 2024 third-round pick to the Packers for Douglas and a 2024 fifth-round pick, and he has played in every game for the Bills and started all but his first game with the team.

Impact: Douglas has brought a spark. In just eight games, he has four interceptions (a team high), eight passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. As the nearest defender, he has allowed 18 completions on 36 targets, per NFL Next Gen Stats, the lowest percentage of the team’s defensive backs. Douglas’ risk-taking mindset has made the defense better, and as safety Jordan Poyer said he’s “extremely smart, extremely instinctive and got great ball skills and he’s gonna continue to help us win football games.” — Alaina Getzenberg

Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt, RBs

How they stepped in: Filling in for Nick Chubb after his season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Impact: The Browns don’t have an elite running game without Chubb, but Ford and Hunt have kept the ground attack afloat. Ford leads the way with 807 rushing yards and has proved to be an effective receiver, catching a pair of TDs from Joe Flacco in last Thursday’s 37-20 win over the New York Jets. Hunt has evolved into a short-yardage specialist and leads the Browns with nine rushing touchdowns. The duo gives Cleveland a sturdy and versatile rushing duo heading into the postseason. — Jake Trotter

DaRon Bland, CB

How he stepped in: When Trevon Diggs was lost for the season due to a torn ACL suffered in practice prior to their Week 3 game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Cowboys turned to Bland as their starter.

Impact: Bland, who made the Pro Bowl, leads the NFL with eight interceptions and has returned a record five for touchdowns this season. The Cowboys felt Bland would be a capable fill-in for Diggs, although not to this extent. He led the Cowboys in interceptions as a rookie last year with five but played mostly in the slot. It has not gone perfectly for Bland. He has given up some big plays, but the tradeoff with the takeaways is something they will live with. — Todd Archer

Ifeatu Melifonwu, S

How he stepped in: Melifonwu took over the starting safety role in Week 14 from Tracy Walker and hasn’t looked back. Walker is now playing mostly on special teams as Melifonwu has emerged as the clear-cut starter.

Impact: Melifonwu was a third-round pick as a cornerback out of Syracuse in 2021, but he made the switch to safety in his second season, and he is now taking off in Year 3. In Week 16, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after his game-sealing interception at the Lions’ 5-yard line with 49 seconds left helped the Lions beat the Vikings and clinch their first division title since 1993. He also had an interception at Dallas on Dec. 30. — Eric Woodyard

Tucker Kraft, TE

How he stepped in: Kraft emerged after Luke Musgrave sustained a lacerated kidney late in the Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Musgrave went on injured reserve but has been practicing the last two weeks and could return for this week’s regular-season finale.

Impact: Kraft and Musgrave will always be tied together because they were taken in back-to-back rounds of this year’s draft — Musgrave in the second and in the third – but Kraft’s role was minimal before Musgrave’s injury. In the first 10 games, Kraft caught five passes for 43 yards and a touchdown in 10 games. In the six games since, Kraft has 23 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns. If and when the Packers have both on the field, it could add another dynamic to the offense. — Rob Demovsky

George Fant, OL

How he stepped in: When RT Tytus Howard broke his hand during training camp, Fant replaced him.

Impact: When Fant stepped in, the offensive line did not miss a beat from a pass-blocking standpoint. Fant ranked 29th among tackles in pass block win rate (88.3), and he’s allowed just three sacks. Fant started 13 games before dealing with a hip injury. — DJ Bien-Aime

Zack Moss, RB; E.J. Speed, LB

How they stepped in: Jonathan Taylor missed the first four weeks of the season while on the physically unable to perform list, opening the door for Moss. And, more recently, Moss filled in while Taylor missed three games in December because of thumb surgery.

The unexpected release of veteran Shaquille Leonard opened the door for Speed to take on a full-time role after splitting snaps through the season’s first 10 games. Speed’s potential is one of the factors that enabled the Colts to move on from Leonard to begin with.

Impact: Although Moss tailed off later in the season, he was a revelation early on. After Week 5, Moss was third in the NFL in rushing behind only the San Francisco 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey and the Miami Dolphins’ De’Von Achane. Perhaps most surprising, Moss ranked second leaguewide in explosive runs in that span despite not being considered a speedster. Moss single-handedly made the Colts’ running game viable while they waited for their top rusher to return, churning out tough yards with his patient and physical running style.

Speed has had a significant impact since taking on the expanded role. He has averaged 10 tackles in the five games since Leonard’s release, and he has provided the Colts with more range and more impact as a pass defender. He’s also registered four tackles for loss in that span. One thing the Colts will be looking for is consistently smart play from Speed, who can make the occasional irresponsible penalty (like his roughing the kicker penalty last Sunday). — Stephen Holder

Jamal Agnew and Parker Washington, WRs

How they stepped in: With WR Christian Kirk going down with a core muscle injury on Dec. 4 and WR Zay Jones being limited to eight games because of knee and hamstring injuries, Agnew and Washington assumed more prominent roles. There’s a chance Kirk’s 21-day practice window to return from IR opens this week, but even if that happens, Washington will have a significant role as the punt returner because Agnew suffered a fractured lower left leg against Carolina last Sunday and is out for the season.

Impact: Agnew, who missed Weeks 11-14 because of rib and shoulder injuries, caught five passes for 135 yards and one TD since Kirk’s injury in Week 13.

Washington’s 15 catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns have come after Kirk’s injury, but there also were some miscommunication issues with routes and adjustments that resulted in turnovers. The 2023 sixth-round pick had only played in three games before Kirk’s injury, so he was learning on the fly, and those issues have improved significantly. — Mike DiRocco

Demarcus Robinson, WR

How he stepped in: The Rams were getting Robinson more involved in the offense after their Week 10 bye, and after Tutu Atwell missed time in the concussion protocol, Robinson solidified his role as the No. 3 receiver behind Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua.

Impact: Down the stretch as the Rams made a playoff push, Robinson went four consecutive games with a touchdown, a career high. In Weeks 15-17, Robinson played all but 14 offensive snaps for an offense that uses three-receiver sets on the vast majority of plays. Robinson and quarterback Matthew Stafford have built a rapport this season. Since Week 13, only the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel (6) and the Seattle Seahawks’ DK Metcalf (5) have more receiving TDs than Robinson’s four (seven other players also have four). — Sarah Barshop

Miami Dolphins

Andrew Van Ginkel, LB

How he stepped in: The rotational linebacker first broke out in Week 2, starting in place of the injured Jaelan Phillips. He’s now assumed the role of not just a starter, but Miami’s key pass-rusher after season-ending injuries to Phillips and Bradley Chubb.

Impact: Van Ginkel is fifth on the team with six sacks, a career high, and will lead the Dolphins’ pass rush for the regular season finale and through the playoffs. He’s had a nose for the ball this season with eight passes defended, a fumble recovery and a pick-six, and will likely earn himself a multiyear contract with Miami this coming offseason. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

San Francisco 49ers

Jon Feliciano, OL

How he stepped in: Starting guards Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford have both missed games with injury, opening the door for Feliciano to make seven starts. While Burford and Banks have returned from injuries, Feliciano was good enough during Burford’s absence that he seems to have nailed down a starting spot on the right side.

Impact: The Niners signed Feliciano with the idea that he could replace Daniel Brunskill as their primary backup at the three interior spots. While he did that early in the season, Feliciano has arguably been the team’s most consistent interior pass-blocker since becoming a starter. His 94.1% pass block win rate is ninth best among all guards in the NFL and best on the team at any position. He’s been equally effective in the run game, posting a 73.6% run block win rate, which ranks 11th among guards who have started at least five games. — Nick Wagoner

Yaya Diaby, LB; Zyon McCollum, CB

How they stepped in: Outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka wasn’t getting to the quarterback, but after Diaby registered 2.0 sacks at the 49ers in Week 11, Diaby moved into the starting role.

For McCollum, starters Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean missed a combined nine games due to injury. Davis missed Week 17 due to being in the concussion protocol, and it is yet to be determined if he will play in Week 18.

Impact: Diaby leads the team with 6.5 sacks, second-most of any rookie linebacker in the league, while his two fumble recoveries are tied for most of any rookie.

McCollum has allowed a 57.3% completion percentage as the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, a better mark than both Davis and Dean this year. McCollum also has nine pass breakups while surrendering three touchdowns. Because he has been playing so well, coach Todd Bowles has created packages for McCollum where he’s lined up as a fourth cornerback to have them all on the field at once. — Jenna Laine

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