The Philadelphia Eagles are one win away from their first Super Bowl championship, but they'll play for it without their most important player, Carson Wentz.
That has not been as big of an issue as many predicted, at least so far. Nick Foles has gone 4-0 in his absence, excluding a meaningless Week 17 loss that Foles exited early, and part of the reason for that is that Wentz isn't the only starter to have been replaced.
In their first four games, the Eagles gave 29 carries to Wendell Smallwood, and he managed only 3.9 yards per carry. On Oct. 31, the Eagles traded for running back Jay Ajayi, and he received 70 carries in seven games, averaging 5.8 yards per rush. He's been their primary ball carrier in the postseason, gaining 197 total yards in Philadelphia's two wins. With Ajayi's help, the Eagles have managed to overcome season-ending injuries to Wentz, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks and kicker Caleb Sturgis.
In fact, Sturgis' injury also opened the door for a pleasant surprise, with early-season pickup Jake Elliott going 26-of-31 on field goals -- including a game-winning 61-yarder -- and 4-of-4 in the postseason.
The Eagles will play the Patriots, a team familiar with the importance of midseason help coming from expected and unexpected places. Despite a preseason injury to Julian Edelman, as well as losing Dont'a Hightower and Marcus Cannon, that hasn't had to be as much of the case this season -- the Patriots have mostly been "next man up" with a roster packed to the gills with notable names. However, Bill Belichick did add linebacker Eric Lee off of the Bills' practice squad on Nov. 21, and he had 3 1/2 sacks, an interception and a safety in six games.
They could also look across the field on Super Bowl Sunday to be reminded of the importance of a quality midseason acquisition, as that's where LeGarrette Blount will be standing. Blount joined the Patriots for the final five games in 2014 after forcing his way out of Pittsburgh, then rushed for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs as Tom Brady went on to win his fourth ring. Two years later, Blount helped Brady and Belichick get their fifth.
Now Blount will try to stop them from getting No. 6.
Which other Super Bowl teams, either on the winning side or losing side, can claim a good "claim" -- whether it be a trade, free agent signing, practice squad promotion or injury return -- in the middle of the season? There are plenty of good examples in the past 20 years alone, serving as a reminder that building a roster is a 365-days-a-year job.
2016 New England Patriots
Dion Lewis (PUP)
Kyle Van Noy (Trade)
Tom Brady, Rob Ninkovich (Suspension)
New England's breakout star of 2017 has been Dion Lewis, the running back who led the NFL in DYAR and was second in DVOA, making him perhaps the most valuable per-play back in the league. Originally a fifth-round pick of the Eagles, Lewis had short stints with the Browns and Colts before signing with the Patriots in 2015. Three games into his New England career, he played well enough to earn a two-year extension, but Lewis tore his ACL in November of that season, forcing him to start 2016 on PUP. The Pats activated him on Nov. 12, 2016, a year after placing him on injured reserve. Lewis played in seven games, and in the divisional round against the Texans he scored three touchdowns -- one rushing, one receiving, one on a kickoff return -- to help New England get in position for another Super Bowl win.
Van Noy was acquired from the Lions at the cost of swapping sixth- and seventh-round picks, and he remains with New England. Ninkovich and Brady served suspensions and then provided an expected boost -- especially by Brady -- the rest of the season.
2015 Carolina Panthers
Jared Allen (Trade)
Charles Johnson (Injured reserve return)
The Panthers went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl in 2015 in large part due to their rushing attack and No. 1 scoring offense, but even more credit is due to their defense, which was as good as any in the league save for the Broncos, the team they eventually lost to. The defense was aided by a September trade for Allen, but also a late-season boost by Johnson. After going on injured reserve in early October, Johnson returned on Nov. 26, then added three sacks in the postseason.
2014 New England Patriots
Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, Alan Branch, Blount (All added between Oct. 22 and Nov. 20)
Blount was previously mentioned, but he wasn't the only midseason acquisition in 2014 that helped the Patriots. They traded a sixth-rounder for Casillas; signed Branch, who had been cut by Buffalo following a DUI; and gave practically nothing to the Titans for Ayers. Casillas and Ayers provided nice support as role players in 2014, but Branch re-signed for two years and is now playing for his third ring with the Patriots.
2013 Seattle Seahawks
Percy Harvin (PUP)
Russell Okung (Injured reserve return)
The Seahawks traded for Harvin well before the season started, but he didn't make his Seattle debut until Week 11 against the Vikings. He may not have done much for the Seahawks, but his second-half opening kickoff return touchdown in Super Bowl XLVIII sealed Seattle's first championship. Okung missed half of the season while on IR, but he returned for the Seahawks' playoff run. Also of note is the importance and presence of Marshawn Lynch, himself a midseason acquisition, albeit three years earlier;
The Seahawks sent two mid-round picks to the Bills for Lynch in 2010, and he helped them win the division (at 7-9) that season, then upset the Saints in the wild card round.
2012 Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis (Injured reserve return)
Terrell Suggs (PUP)
Baltimore got devastating news well before the 2012 season started when Suggs suffered a partially torn Achilles in May. The 4-6-month recovery time put his season in doubt, but Suggs came back for eight games, which was even more important given that Lewis missed 10 games with a torn triceps. It was even reported at the time that Lewis would miss the rest of the year, but he came back in time for the playoffs and the Ravens went 4-0 by the slimmest of margins in some cases, making it even more important to get Suggs and Lewis as reinforcements just in time.
2010 Green Bay Packers
James Starks (PUP)
Erik Walden (Signing)
Howard Green (Waiver claim)
Most people haven't heard the name Howard Green, but he was a key contributor toward Aaron Rodgers' only Super Bowl appearance/championship. Green was claimed off waivers from the Jets in October and appeared in nine games at nose tackle. In the Super Bowl, however, he hit Ben Roethlisberger's arm on a pass attempt, forcing a bad throw that turned into a pick-six in Green Bay's 31-25 victory.
The Packers also signed Walden in late October. and he had 25 tackles and two sacks, while Starks was added in November off the PUP list. Starks had 315 rushing yards and a touchdown in four postseason games.
2007 New York Giants
Ahmad Bradshaw (Injury replacement)
Bradshaw made the team as a seventh-round pick in 2007, but he didn't contribute much on offense. He was a good kick returner but also had two fumbles in that area, which is not an ideal way to start a career. After some late-season injuries to the running backs, though, Bradshaw got opportunities, gaining 151 yards in Week 16. He rushed for 208 yards in the playoffs -- more than his regular season total -- and was a key player in the Giants' upset win over the Patriots. Four years later, he had 272 rushing yards and 114 receiving yards in New York's second surprise championship run.
2006 Indianapolis Colts
Bob Sanders (Return from injury)
Sanders will mostly be remembered for his unfortunate injury history, and that's still the case here, but 2006 had a happy ending. Sanders missed all but four games that season (his scattershot appearances were in Weeks 1, 2, 8 and 12) and made 27 tackles with an interception, but he was active for all four playoff games. In those games, he had two interceptions and made key plays throughout, helping the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC championship game with a key stop on Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, then recording a forced fumble and an interception in the Super Bowl win over the Bears. The Colts' regular-season defensive stats were meaningless because they were playing without perhaps the NFL's best defensive player at the time.
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger (Return from injury)
The Steelers went 11-5 in 2005, but they were arguably much better than that. Pittsburgh went 2-2 in four games without Roethlisberger, then lost his first two games back from injury. The Steelers were 22-3 with Big Ben over his first two seasons, and he may have been hurt in two of those losses. They then went 4-0 in the 2005 postseason, culminating in a Super Bowl win over the Seahawks.
2004 Philadelphia Eagles
Terrell Owens (Injury return for Super Bowl)
T.O. didn't miss much of the 2004 season (two games), but a horse-collar tackle by Roy Williams caused a severely sprained ankle and fractured fibula that threatened to wipe out his chance at the playoffs. Owens returned in time for the Super Bowl, and he had nine catches for 122 yards, though it was not quite enough to get the Eagles a win over the Patriots.
2003 New England Patriots
Ted Washington (Return from injury)
Washington was a trade acquisition in 2003, but that happened in August, just before the start of the season. New England sent the Bears a fourth-round pick for the nose tackle's services. Washington then missed six games in the middle of the season, returning in mid-November. He was a key player on the Patriots' defense as they won their second Super Bowl, and it was Washington's only season in New England out of a 17-year career.
2002 Oakland Raiders
Charles Woodson (Return from injury)
Woodson missed half of 2002 with a shoulder injury (Oakland went 7-1 when he was active, 4-4 when he wasn't) but was healthy enough to start in the playoffs. He recorded an interception in the Raiders' Super Bowl loss to the Bucs. That pick came off of Brad Johnson, who was injured late in the year and needed Toradol shots just to be able to play in those games, another late-season boost that a team desperately needed.
Prior to the 2002 division realignment, you could find other key midseason acquisitions. This includes the Raiders' trade for cornerback Mike Haynes in 1983 -- the Hall of Famer had a pick in their Super Bowl win over Washington that season -- and then Washington's use of replacement players during the 1987 strike that helped it go 3-0 in those games. We're seeing a lot more in-season activity these days, such as the trade for Ajayi, as well as trades of Duane Brown, Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcell Dareus and Adrian Peterson this year, because teams may have more confidence in their ability to make them work in their system right away. It may also be due to the increasing value of draft picks and the salary cap, but the fear of making big changes and moves in the middle of the year is a lot less prevalent than it used to be.
If the Eagles win a Super Bowl with Ajayi now, who knows how many major moves we could see at the deadline next season? That change toward a more active deadline may already be in motion, regardless.