Vikings cruise past Bengals 34-7 to clinch NFC North

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Vikings and their loud crowd overwhelmed the Cincinnati Bengals from start to finish, when they put on NFC North champions hats to celebrate the first major milestone of this season with the hope of several more to come.

From coaches to players to fans, everyone in purple was able to enjoy a postseason tuneup.

Eric Kendricks had an interception return for a touchdown , Case Keenum passed for 236 yards and two scores, and the Vikings clinched the division title with a 34-7 victory over the depleted and disinterested Bengals on Sunday.

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“To guarantee a home playoff game there? I can’t imagine. I have a feeling it’s going to be even more amped up,” Keenum said.

Running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined for 37 touches and 242 yards from scrimmage for the Vikings (11-3), who were given quite the reprieve on the schedule after their eight-game winning streak ended at Carolina in the last of three consecutive road trips.

“It feels good,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said, “but it was a little bit restrained because there’s still work to do.”

The Vikings were never challenged by a Bengals team missing more than half of its starting defense to injuries and met with a morning report by ESPN that head coach Marvin Lewis will not return next season . Lewis said afterward that’s not true, but the Bengals have all kinds of issues to address after losing their last two games by a combined 67-14.

“It’s the most disappointed I’ve been in the last couple of years,” said wide receiver A.J. Green, who accounted for two of Cincinnati’s three first downs while starting quarterback Andy Dalton was in the game until midway through the fourth quarter. “It’s been a tough season.”

The game went so smoothly for the Vikings that Teddy Bridgewater even made his grand entrance , his first live action in 16 months since a massive knee injury. Bridgewater’s first pass was intercepted, a high throw that bounced off McKinnon’s hands and into the arms of strong safety Shawn Williams deep in Vikings territory. That set up a short touchdown run by Giovani Bernard to keep the Bengals from being shut out for a second time this year.

“It was great just being out there,” Bridgewater said. “I have a ton of people to thank for getting me to this point.”

Terence Newman also picked off former teammate Andy Dalton , who went just 11 for 22 for 113 yards before the Bengals (5-9) turned to backup A.J. McCarron after the interception by Williams.

Keenum completed 20 of 23 passes, including seven easy tosses to McKinnon for 114 yards in the first 100-yard receiving game for a Vikings running back since Onterrio Smith in 2004. With the Bengals already missing both starting cornerbacks and all three regular linebackers, they lost standout free safety George Iloka in the first quarter to a shoulder injury. That left Williams as the only starter in the back seven.

About the only bright spot for the Bengals was five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who sacked Keenum twice in the first quarter. The Bengals didn’t cross midfield with the ball until less than 3 minutes were left in the third quarter, thanks to a Vikings defense that was as revved up as ever.

“The Super Bowl is in their home stadium,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “They’ve got everything they want in front of them.”

END ZONE FUN

Murray scored on a short run to cap the opening drive by the Viking, and Keenum found Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph for touchdown passes in the second and fourth quarters. Rudolph celebrated with a tribute to a better day for the 50-year-old Bengals franchise with his version of the “Ickey Shuffle” that running back Ickey Woods for the 1988 AFC champions.

“I felt bad doing it at that point in the game, but as a kid that grew up in Cincinnati, I had to do it,” said Rudolph, who was originally listed as doubtful to play because of an injured ankle.

TORMENTING THE MENTOR

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer won his first regular-season meeting against his old boss, Lewis, who lost to a former assistant for the first time in eight matchups. Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 2008-13. The Bengals have never won in six all-time visits to Minnesota. The Vikings were division champions in five of those seasons: 1970, 1989, 1998, 2009 and 2017.

INJURY REPORT

Bengals: The list of missing starters grew immediately when LT Cedric Ogbuehi (shoulder) left in the first quarter. RT Andre Smith limped off in the fourth quarter.

Vikings: RT Mike Remmers (back) returned from a five-game absence, but LT Riley Reiff (ankle) missed his first game of the season. CB Mackensie Alexander (ribs) was out. WR Jarius Wright hurt his foot in the fourth quarter and did not return.

UP NEXT

Bengals: Play their final home game against Detroit, with the Lions (8-6) still carrying an outside chance at a wild-card spot.

Vikings: Travel to Green Bay to face the Packers (7-7) on Saturday night, with their sights set on securing a first-round bye for the playoffs.

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Jags ‘threw a tantrum’ when Marrone started making changes

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Jacksonville’s locker room was abuzz late last season. Four guys played table tennis while others crowded around a small table for dominoes. Two 80-inch televisions were tuned to a sports highlight show, and music blared from one corner of the room.

Doug Marrone, the team’s offensive line coach at the time, walked through and shook his head.

“Can you believe this?” Marrone whispered.

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The Jaguars were in the middle of a nine-game losing streak that would ultimately cost coach Gus Bradley his job. Marrone had watched from afar for two years, witnessing an atmosphere he felt was too loose, too laid-back and too lenient amid losing.

So when Marrone was hired to replace Bradley last January, high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. His success is one reason the Jaguars (12-6) are in the AFC championship game against New England (14-3).

The ping pong table was the first to go. Dominoes followed. The locker room stalls were overhauled, too, with Marrone mixing and matching position groups and putting certain players next to veteran leaders and/or NFL role models.

“We definitely threw a tantrum,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “Went in there and talked to him about it. Definitely wasn’t happy. I learned just to be quiet, you know, and go with the flow. He’s been at it longer than I have, and I’m just the football player. He says do this and I go do it. Just learn to follow him, and I’m glad I did.”

Marrone saved the most significant changes for the practice fields.

Marrone, top executive Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell wanted a much tougher and more physical team. They drafted bruising running back Leonard Fournette and fiery left tackle Cam Robinson to complement a defense that was significantly beefed up in free agency with the addition of All-Pro pass-rusher Calais Campbell, Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and veteran safety Barry Church.

They also designed an offseason program that was more grueling than most players had experienced. Marrone’s message was clear: Go hard or go home.

“You remember guys in camp talking about this took a few years off their lives,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty funny just to see us now. I guess he does know what he’s doing.”

The Jaguars were in full pads nearly every day during training camp, a tortuous stretch in draining heat and humidity that left rookies and veterans questioning the process and wondering if it would pay off. It was the NFL’s version of boot camp. Break them down, then build them up.

It ultimately brought players closer, making them accountable to each other and causing them to care more for each other. Winning was the final piece, and thumping Houston 29-7 in the season opener was all the proof players needed.

“It was the toughest training camp I’ve ever been a part of,” said linebacker Paul Posluszny, in his 11th season. “Coach Marrone would talk to us and say, `Listen, I have a plan and you have to trust me.’ With that, guys were able to say, `OK, we haven’t gotten what we wanted in years past doing things a certain way, so we have to buy in, trust the head man and know that that’ll bring us success when it’s time.’

“It was difficult just because of so many changes from what we were used to. I think the most important thing is we always said, `Well, if it helps us win, then it’s all good.'”

Jacksonville had lost 63 of 80 games over the previous five seasons – the worst record in the NFL during that span – and had been through two coaching changes.

Coughlin’s return was a key part of the team’s revival, and although the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the New York Giants gets much of the outside credit for the team’s turnaround, the reality is Marrone was the one pushing all the right buttons.

Marrone has been other places where players resisted, prompting personnel moves that would slow progress. That wasn’t the case in Jacksonville, and he credited his players for being open to change.

“They gave our staff the opportunity to say, `This is what we want to do. This is what we believe in as coaches or as an organization. This is how we want to handle ourselves,”‘ Marrone said. “We are still working toward that. It is not perfect by any means.”

It’s clearly working, though. The Jaguars are in the title game for the third time in franchise history, one victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance.

“They say (stuff) rolls downhill,” Jackson said. “Well, the good stuff rolls downhill, too. … It’s all worth it when you win.”

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Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey tells fans ‘we’re going to Super Bowl’

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey did pretty much the same thing that upset his Jacksonville Jaguars teammates last week.

He started looking ahead.

Ramsey told thousands of fans awaiting the team’s return from Pittsburgh late Sunday that the Jaguars “are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that (expletive).”

Jacksonville (12-6), of course, has the AFC championship game at New England remaining before even getting to the Super Bowl. The small-market franchise is winless in seven games in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and 1-10 all-time against the Patriots (14-3).

Ramsey’s comments surely will find their way north.

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“You come back and you’ve got all the fans here and things of that nature,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said.

“Obviously that’s something that everybody, they want to do when you get close. Whether you have to say it or not? The one thing I do know is the road to it always leads through New England.

“Our focus isn’t on anything else but the New England Patriots. It will be a great challenge for us obviously.”

The Jags took exception to the Steelers talking about facing the Patriots instead of them, and used it as motivation in a 45-42 victory Sunday.

Nonetheless, they stood behind their outspoken and ultra-talented defender.

“To me, it’s just a man that has confidence in his team,” defensive tackle Abry Jones said. “What’s he going to say? He knows what we’re going up there to do. It’s not like he ain’t saying nothing that’s not true.”

Fellow defensive tackle Malik Jackson said the difference between Ramsey’s remarks and comments from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, running back Le'Veon Bell and safety Mike Mitchell is the timing.

“We’re so close that I think it’s OK to say, `Hey, we’re going to do this,”‘ Jackson said. “It’s one of those things that I think he believes in himself after the game he just had, locking down one of the best receivers in the game.

“He’s pretty hyped and he wants to let everybody know he’s hyped, so I think he’s just happy and he understands that we have a giant in front of us and we’ve just got to pay all the attention to this team.

“We don’t even know who’s going to play in the Super Bowl because we’re not looking ahead to that.”

Ramsey was unavailable during the team’s open locker room session Monday.

“He’s going to talk, but we’re going to show up,” defensive end Yannick Ngakoue said. “I just don’t like when people talk all week. You talk reckless and you lose.”

The Jaguars voiced their displeasure with being overlooked by the Steelers last week and were really vocal after the victory at Heinz Field. Players yelled, “Where’s Mike Mitchell at now” as they came off the field.

“I feel like they took us lightly. I don’t know why because we whooped them the first time,” Ngakoue said. “You’ve got to respect all your opponents. That’s why we’re not big in trash-talking. We’re big in playing on Sunday.

“Real guys, real people don’t talk. We throw the first punch. We threw the first punch and we got the victory.”

And now they have a matchup against the NFL’s most successful franchise over the past two decades.

The Jaguars are 1-3 against New England in the postseason, with the lone victory coming after the 1998 season – before coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady teamed up to take five Super Bowl titles.

Jacksonville’s win came against coach Pete Carroll and backup quarterback Scott Zolak.

The Jags are 0-7 against the Brady-Belichick combination.

“We’re not going to go out there like the Steelers the week before and talk about people in a bad way and give them bulletin board news,” Jackson said.

“We just continue to work and earn respect. … We just keep proving people wrong. (Blake Bortles) keeps proving people wrong, and we just keep going on it and pounding people. It’s just awesome to see and awesome to be a part of.

“We understand we have to do what we have to do or we’ll be watching the Super Bowl at home like everybody else.”

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