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One win could make all the difference for Packers, Broncos

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The Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers head into Sunday night’s showdown sporting identical 6-0 records. Barring an unlikely tie, one of them will head into their next game with a 7-0 record, while the other will be 6-1. Just how important is that difference likely to be?

From 6-0 to 7-0

Since the NFL expanded the playoffs to six teams in 1990, 36 teams have started 6-0. Of the 31 teams in previous seasons to accomplish that feat, 20 of them won their next game and advanced to 7-0.

Those teams were on the whole outstandingly successful. All of them made the postseason. Seventeen earned a first-round bye. Only one, the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs, did not win their division, and they were in the AFC West with the 6-0 Broncos. Nine made the Super Bowl. Five ended the season as NFL champions, and two of the losers lost to another team that began 7-0.

One cautionary note is 7-0 teams have not fared nearly as well since the NFL went to the current eight-division format in 2002. Of the thirteen teams to start 7-0 since then, six lost their first playoff game. That includes three teams – the 2005 Colts, the 2008 Titans, and the 2011 Packers – that finished the season with the best record in the NFL.

From 6-0 to 6-1

What about the team that loses this game? How have previous 6-0 teams that then lost fared? First, history says 6-1 is no guarantee of a postseason appearance. Broncos fans know this from 2009, when Denver started 6-0 under Josh McDaniels before fading to 8-8 as the defense collapsed. Defensive issues also sunk the 2003 Minnesota Vikings, who finished 3-7.

Most teams that suffered their first loss in their seventh game of the season fared just fine, though. Just one, the 2000 Rams, lost their first playoff game. The more successful teams include those 2013 Broncos, who won the AFC, and the 1997 Broncos, who took the wild card route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. Overall, six of the nine that went to the playoffs made the Super Bowl. Three won it. The most encouraging parallel for the loser of Sunday’s game might be the 2004 Patriots. They lost to the Steelers in Week 8, but won a postseason rematch and eventually hoisted the Lombardi Trophy again.

There is also a larger pool of teams that got to 6-1 without necessarily losing their seventh game. Since realignment in 2002, 20 of the 25 teams to start 6-1 have made the postseason. This pool includes the 2013 Seahawks, who defeated those 2013 Broncos, and the 2003 Panthers, who won the NFC South and reached the Super Bowl without a bye. But on the whole it is better to be 7-0 than to be 6-1.

In the Context of 2015

What makes going to 7-0 instead of 6-1 especially important for both Denver and Green Bay is they are not the only 6-0 teams in their conference this year. Despite their perfect record, the Broncos would be the AFC’s third seed if the season ended today, behind New England and Cincinnati. Green Bay similarly ranks behind Carolina. All of the numbers about 7-0 and 6-1 teams that apply to Denver and Green Bay apply with equal force to the Patriots, Bengals, and Panthers.

There are a couple pieces of relatively good news. First, the most important tiebreaker in determining the postseason pecking order is conference results. This interconference result matters for Denver and Green Bay’s overall record, but it will not hurt the loser too much.

Each team has a second piece of good news. For Green Bay, they will not be competing with both Carolina and 6-1 Atlanta for a postseason seed. The top four seeds go to the division winners, and no more than one of the Falcons and Panthers can win the NFC South. Denver has no such silver lining, but they will get a chance to settle things on the field against both the Patriots and Bengals later in the season. If they win both those games, they will be in great position to get home-field advantage. If they lose both, a bye is difficult. Either way, both games are likely to carry more weight than this one.

The most important task for the Broncos and Packers, regardless of who wins, is to keep playing excellent football for the rest of the season. Starting 6-0 is no guarantee of making the postseason. Starting 7-0 is no guarantee of getting a first-round bye, even if it makes it likely. Earning home field advantage is no guarantee of postseason success. Sunday’s is likely to be a great contest. The season is a long one, however, and the winner is guaranteed nothing while the loser’s fate is far from sealed.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL