Antonio Brown, Receiver of Renown

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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense will present several threats to the Indianapolis Colts’ offense on Sunday night. Perhaps the most dangerous is Antonio Brown, one of the league’s most prolific receivers and, by at least one measure, the most valuable. What does Brown do so well, and what makes him so good?

Volume, But Not Just Volume

Brown currently ranks second in the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards, behind only Julio Jones. It should come as no surprise he ranks highly in both categories. After all, he ranks third in the league in targets, behind Jones and Houston’s one-man band, DeAndre Hopkins.

But targets are no guarantee of production. Just ask Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, who was having a down season even before his 13-target, one-catch performance against the Patriots last Sunday night. What matters more is efficiency, and Brown has been very efficient. Just like he did last season, he currently sits atop the Football Outsiders’ leaderboard as the most valuable receiver in the league. What makes Brown so valuable?

Not in the Red Zone, But Getting There

Many of the most valuable receivers in the league are like Larry Fitzgerald, red zone monsters. That is not Brown’s forte, as his total of just five touchdowns indicates. He is not even the Steelers’ most-targeted player in the red zone. That distinction belongs instead to tight end Heath Miller.

Brown’s most productive areas are when the Steelers are trying to get to scoring territory in the first place. He is the second-most-valuable receiver in the league when the Steelers are between their own 20 and their own 40, and the seventh-most-valuable receiver in the league when the Steelers are between their own 40 and their opponents’ 40, the back and middle areas of the field where teams start most of their possessions and where many possessions go to die. Red zone receiving threats are incredibly valuable, but the best players are full-field players, and Brown is one of those.

A Threat Everywhere Past the Line of Scrimmage

Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley is a devotee of the wide receiver screen, and Brown is his preferred screen player. He has 20 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage this year, most on the team. Haley may wish to rethink part of his strategy, as this is pretty much the only area on the field Brown has not been highly productive this year.

Brown’s most productive area of the field has been the very deep pass, those thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Even with the time he has missed, Ben Roethlisberger is tied with Carson Palmer for the most very deep attempts in the league. He has been excellent on those, ranking second to Derek Carr in total value by Football Outsiders’ metrics.

Brown is a big reason for Roethlisberger’s success on those very deep passes. Football Outsiders’ metrics rate him as the most valuable receiver in the league on such throws, ahead of Carr’s favorite target, Amari Cooper.

Brown is far from just a deep-ball specialist, as he displays special skills on short passes. There are 54 wide receivers who have been targeted at least 25 times within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He ranks first among that group with an average of 6.9 yards after the catch. That is not just one fluke play either, as he ranks third on passes 1-5 yards downfield and first on passes 6-10 yards downfield.

Even on shorter passes, Brown does not need to get yards after the catch to be highly productive. He averages just 0.4 yards after the catch on passes 11-15 yards downfield but still ranks as one of the most valuable players in the league on those passes too. The reason: he catches almost everything. He has a catch rate of 81 percent, best among the 25 players with at least 15 such targets.

Brown is also not just a one-side-of-the-field specialist, like Odell Beckham was. He has been targeted in roughly equal numbers on both the left and right sides of the field, and has been just about as efficient on either side of the field. The one tendency has been his high yards-after-catch plays on short passes tend to come in the middle of the field.

A great deal of Brown’s value comes from not just where he is targeted, but when. He’s had the ball thrown in his direction on third or fourth down more often than any receiver in the league. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league there. His 190 DYAR on third and fourth downs is 50 percent more than second-place A.J. Green‘s.

What It Means

Brown is not as physical pre-possession as Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones or Dez Bryant, but he might still be the league’s best receiver. He can beat you after the catch on short passes. He can sit down in intermediate routes, get open, and catch everything. He can beat you deep. He will beat you on third downs. He has even been just as good playing with Landry Jones as with Ben Roethlisberger. The only people to slow him down this season have been Michael Vick and Richard Sherman. Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky needs a good plan, or else Brown could match the 133 yards and two touchdowns he had in Pittsburgh’s 51-34 win last year.

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