How great is J.J. Watt?

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Despite playing with a broken hand, J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ All-World defendsive end, will be the biggest challenge the New England Patriots’ offense will face this Sunday. Since his breakout pick-six in Houston’s playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie, the fifth-year defensive end developed into one of the league’s best defensive players. Just how good is he, and how does he compare to some of the greatest defensive players of the recent past?

Sacks, Sacks and More Sacks

The most visible number for Watt’s dominance is his sack total. He had 20.5 his second season, 20.5 again in 2014, and has 13.5 in 12 games this year. His 36.5 sacks in his first three seasons are the seventh-most since the NFL started officially keeping track of stats in 1982. His 57 sacks in his first four seasons is the third-best total. With four games left to play in his fifth season, he is already at 70.5 career sacks. The only other player with at least 70 sacks in his first five NFL seasons is Reggie White, who had the benefit of playing two USFL seasons first. Just three other players have had at least 60 sacks in their first five seasons, though Von Miller will likely join that group. By any standard, Watt is off to the best start to his career of anybody in the history of the official sack metric.

Watt’s five-year streak has been impressive not just for a rookie, but for any player at all. He is just the sixth different player since 1982 to have at least 70 sacks in a five-year period at any point in his career. (Table 1.)

Table 1. 70-plus Sacks in Five-Year Span, 1982-2015

Player Years
Jared Allen 2007-2013
Bruce Smith 1986-1990
Lawrence Taylor 1984-1990
DeMarcus Ware 2006-2012
J.J. Watt 2011-2015
Reggie White 1985-1992

More Than Just Sacks

It would be one thing if Watt was just a pure sacker, or if he was converting pressures to sacks at a particularly high rate. He is not. Even in his modest, 5.5-sack rookie season, he was tied for sixth in the league in quarterback hits. In each of 2012, 2013, and 2014, he led the league in combined sacks and quarterback hits by at least 10 each season. In 2014, he had a combined 54 sacks and hits, a whopping 23 more than second-place Elvis Dumervil. Like his 13.5 sacks so far, his 42 quarterback hits also leads the NFL. He is also getting near the passer when he does not hit him. According to Football Outsiders data, he was fifth in the NFL in hurries in 2012, fourth in 2013, and first in 2014.

Watt also excels at winning when he does not get near the passer, by getting his hands into passing lanes and deflecting passes. His most impressive season in that category was 2012 when he tipped 18 passes at the line of scrimmage, per Football Outsiders, more than twice as many as any other defender. In 2013, he was one back of the league leaders in that area, and he again topped the league in 2014. This season, his five passes defensed lead all defensive linemen.

His Position Makes His Production More Impressive

What makes Watt’s productivity even more impressive is where he’s doing it from. The lists of the top sackers and hurriers, both present-day and in the past, is full of edge-rushers, 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. Watt’s versatility has increased in recent years, but he has spent much of his career as a 3-4 defensive end while playing defensive tackle in sub-package situations. The interior line is the shortest path to the quarterback, but it also tends to be the hardest one. The only other non-edge rushers among the historical lists of the top sackers are Bill Pickel, a 1980s Raiders nose tackle who excelled early, and Bruce Smith.

Great Run Defense As Well

The criticism, fair or not, against many interior linemen who do get pressure, from the modestly successful to Hall of Famers like John Randle, is they are not good run defenders. Watt is almost undeniably a superb one, ranking first in the league in run tackles for loss in both 2012 and 2014 and third in 2013. His particular specialty is making plays from the backside of runs, where he excels at getting inside and forcing the runner to bounce the run to avoid being taken down in the backfield.

The Difficulty of Putting Watt in Perspective

Unfortunately, some of the stats that show Watt’s greatness make it hard to compare him to other players. Sacks were not an official stat before 1982. Passes defensed are not widely available before 2001. Quarterback hits go back to 2006. Hurries and other unofficial stats are about as old. Tackle totals still vary widely between scorers, and they were worse before the mid-1990s. This makes it hard to more precisely compare Watt to greats like Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, and Reggie White.

The most comprehensive measure we have may be Football Outsiders’ defeats, which goes back to 1996 and includes sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, and third-and-fourth-down tackles short of the sticks. Watt’s 56 defeats in 2012 is the most by any single player in that time span. His 43 in 2014 ranks fourth. His league-leading 34 through 12 games this year puts him on pace to match Ray Lewis’ third-highest total of 45. By almost any measure Watt is the most consistently impactful defender of the past 20 years. His only challenge now may be sustaining that greatness for the rest of his career.

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