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.

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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

Stunner: Keenum-Diggs TD sends Vikings past Saints 29-24

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) As Case Keenum convened the Minnesota huddle with 10 seconds left, the situation staring down the Vikings was as simple as it was daunting.

With the go-ahead field goal by the New Orleans Saints that silenced this deafening stadium still fresh in the air, the Vikings were well beyond any moment of anxiety. All that was left for Keenum to do on that last snap was to throw the ball up like he used to do in his Texas backyards and hope for the best.

Keenum completed his last-ditch heave near the sideline Sunday on the game’s final play to Stefon Diggs, who slithered away from the Saints for a 61-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 29-24 victory and a spot in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia.

“At that point, I’m just a kid throwing a football to another big kid,” Keenum said with a smile, “and he just runs and scores.”

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One more win, against the Eagles, and the Vikings will become the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their home turf. Instead of the usual win-or-go-home stakes, they’re in a win-and-go-home situation.

“It never ends that way,” Diggs said. “Usually, it’s reality. It’s life. So things go and you walk home and worry it about tomorrow.”

Instead, Drew Brees and the Saints were the ones trudging off the field in defeat.

“We’re still a bit shell-shocked after what happened there at the end,” said Brees, who steered the Saints in position for Wil Lutz‘s 43-yard kick with 25 seconds remaining that punctuating a forceful rally from a 17-point deficit that stood until 1:16 was left in the third quarter.

The field goal was set up by a fourth-and-10 completion by Brees to Willie Snead for 13 yards to the Minnesota 33 with 40 seconds left. Brees connected with Michael Thomas for two of his three touchdown passes in a span of 3:09 that spilled into the fourth quarter. The second score was set up at the Minnesota 40 by an interception by Marcus Williams, when an off-balance throw into traffic by Keenum served as his one costly moment of recklessness, a “bonehead play,” as he put it.

Keenum settled back in. He guided the Vikings to two more field goals by Kai Forbath, including a 53-yarder with 1:29 left that was his third of the game against his former team and gave them their lead back after a blocked punt by George Johnson had set up the Saints for a touchdown pass by Brees to Alvin Kamara.

Then came the play that put Keenum and Diggs in permanent rotation on the NFL’s all-time highlight reels.

“We knew there was still a possibility, still some hope,” Keenum said.

This wasn’t quite Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 playoffs, but these Vikings are on some kind of special path after turning to Keenum in the second game of the season after original starter Sam Bradford was sidelined by a knee injury.

The Vikings were out of timeouts and nearly out of options when Keenum dropped back from his 39 and threw high into a crowd. Diggs jumped in front of Williams, who rolled awkwardly underneath Diggs during an ill-fated attempt at making a low tackle.

Devastatingly for the Saints, nobody was behind him in the secondary, as Diggs made sure to note right before he made the break on his route during the play the Vikings, believe it or not, call “Seven Heaven.”

Diggs kept his balance as he landed, kept his feet in bounds and kept on running untouched into the end zone as the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium erupted with euphoria. Keenum raced around the field, looking for anyone to hug.

“I’m shocked. I don’t know what else to say. This is the first time ever I’m out of words,” Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said.

Keenum, the undrafted and undersized all-time leading passer in NCAA history who was making his first career playoff start and has long looked up to Brees, was having a hard time finding the words to describe the experience. He finished with 318 yards, going 25 for 40, with Diggs catching 137 yards on six catches.

“A heck of a game, wasn’t it?” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “And the good guys won.”

Diggs was still in full uniform when he took the podium for his postgame interview, the ball from the winning catch resting safely in front of him on the lectern.

“It’s plays like this that you dream about your whole life,” he said, “and it finally happens.”

PICKED OFF

Brees saw his 13th career postseason game end in a crushing final moment, his 25-for-40 performance for 294 yards tainted a bit by two interceptions before halftime. One came on a leaping grab by safety Andrew Sendejo , the other off a tip by Griffen that landed in Anthony Barr‘s arms at the Minnesota 10-yard line midway through the third quarter.

FIRST-HALF FORCE

The Vikings came roaring out of their first-round bye, forcing punts by the Saints on their first three possessions and moving 55 yards in eight plays for a touchdown run by Jerick McKinnon on their first drive. Aided by two pass interference calls on Ken Crawley for 54 yards, the Vikings reached the 1-yard line before settling for a short field goal on the next possession. They pushed the lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter when Latavius Murray plowed in from the 1-yard line.

“The Vikings had a phenomenal game plan,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.

The only other time the Saints went scoreless in the first half of a postseason game was five years ago. They fell behind 16-0 at Seattle in the divisional round and lost 23-15 to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

SENDEJO DOWN

The first touchdown to Thomas came one play after he leveled Sendejo with a jarring blindside block, sending Sendejo to the sideline for concussion evaluation and reigniting the crowd when the flag that was initially thrown was waved off.

UP NEXT

Saints: head home with a 1-5 record on the road in the playoffs under Payton, with a promising group of young players but some uncertainty around how much longer Brees, who will turn 39 on Monday, will stick around.

“I’m more toward the end of my career than I am at the beginning, I know that,” Brees said. “That’s all I’ll divulge.”

Vikings: move on to Philadelphia for the 10th championship game appearance in franchise history, the fifth in the last 30 years. They won the first four, losing in the Super Bowl each time.

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

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.

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