Mind games between Patriots-Broncos before big game Sunday

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Gronk pushes off. Brady whines.

If it’s AFC championship week, somebody must be complaining about the New England Patriots.

This time around, it’s the Denver Broncos, who have delivered a few hits through the media – both traditional and social – in a not-so-subtle attempt to get inside the heads of both the Patriots and, quite possibly, the officials who will call Sunday’s game.

The biggest pokes have, not surprisingly, been directed at Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, with the Broncos suggesting he likes to push off and how it’s really best to tackle him by going after his delicate knees. Gronk didn’t appreciate that and responded in R-rated fashion on Twitter.

Tom Brady took some shots, too, labeled a crybaby for complaining to refs.

“Just talk. Just talk,” Broncos tight end Vernon Davis said. “I don’t think they would say anything to target anyone on the Patriots side.”

These early week doses of trash talk have calmed down now that the real preparation has begun. Still, they’ve made for a decent story line to go beside the hundreds of different takes on Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, Part 17.

The highlights:

– Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall weighed in on Gronkowski, saying he uses his big frame to push off.

– Defensive lineman Antonio Smith didn’t hold back on Brady with his comments: “I’ve never seen any quarterback look to the referee right after he gets sacked more than Brady. Every time he gets sacked he looks at the ref like, `You see him sack me?”‘

But the comment that caused Gronk to throw a flag was mention by several Broncos of going after his knees, since he’s so hard to bring down. Gronkowski responded with a tweet that let his feelings be known in a comical, yet not exactly fit for print sort of way. He added a few emoji for good measure.

“I was just having a little fun with it, hoping to get a little laugh, which I think it did,” Gronkowski said. “It’s just all fun and games with that.”

Still, linebacker Danny Trevathan didn’t exactly find Gronkowski’s tweet endearing. He took it as more of a stab at his defense.

Trevathan insisted the banter stokes the fire.

“I’m glad they feel confident in themselves. I think people are looking for attention,” Trevathan said. “It’s not my job to give it to them until Sunday. My job is to shut them down when they come here, keep his mouth closed as much as I can.”

Broncos defensive back Bradley Roby finds all the back-and-forth highly entertaining. It’s juicy stuff.

“We’re not worried about the trash talking, just makes it more exciting,” Roby said. “Brings more attention to the game.”

As for the assertion that Brady lobbies more than most for penalties with the officials, well, the iconic QB took the high road. He said he’s “not sure” if he works the referees more than other quarterbacks around the league.

“If the refs want to throw the flag, I love when they throw flags on the defenders, absolutely,” Brady said. “It advances our team, so that’s just part of football.”

So is trying to get under a team’s skin. Davis experienced the same sort of thing when he was with San Francisco and preparing to face rival Seattle.

“Everyone is talking – you can say this, you can say that – but at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words,” Davis said. “When it comes to the talking, I stay away from it.”

Hard to ignore social media barbs, though. Unless, of course, you’re offensive lineman Ryan Harris.

“I don’t even know what Twitter is. What’s Twitter?” Harris deadpanned. “Whoever is going to win this game, it’s going to be decided on the field this Sunday, not on some social media site, or some quotation that may or may not have been taken out of context.”

Online: AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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