Teddy Bridgewater

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

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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

Eagles become Super Bowl LII betting favorites

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Although the toughest stage of their season is ahead of them, the Philadelphia Eagles seem to be worth their price tag on the Super Bowl LII champion odds.

The Eagles, led by young quarterback Carson Wentz, are now the +400 favorite on the odds to win Super Bowl 52 at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The defending champion New England Patriots (+450) are the second favorite, with the Pittsburgh Steelers (+750), Kansas City Chiefs (+1100), Seattle Seahawks (+1200), Los Angeles Rams (+1400) and New Orleans Saints (+1400) also moving up the board.

Philadelphia enters Week 10 of the season with a NFL-best 8-1 record, a prolific offense led by Wentz and a defense that leads the NFL in sacks. Their remaining slate still includes two games against the Dallas Cowboys (+1600) as well as potential playoff previews against the Rams and Seahawks, but Philadelphia is in the driver’s seat to have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

That makes them a more sure commodity than most other teams, especially since having a strong rushing attack and a strong run defense could work in their favor come playoff time.

The Patriots are having their issues on defense, but the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady mystique makes it hard to write them off this early in the game. At the same time, New England is at the midpoint of the season ranked dead last in the NFL in yards allowed and passing yards allowed. It’s hard to win with substandard defense.

The value among AFC aspirants, though, probably rests more with the Steelers. Two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is no longer at his peak, but is surrounded by better skill-position talent than Brady and Pittsburgh also boasts a top-5 defense with a reliable pass rush.

Similarly, while they have cooled off, Kansas City is worth monitoring if one believes both the Patriots and Steelers are too flawed to win the conference.

In the NFC, the Seahawks are one team that can probably be singled out as a sucker bet due to the weakness of their offensive line and rushing game. If one is inclined to cast their lot with an outside shot from the NFC, it might be better to take a long look at either the Rams or Minnesota Vikings (+1600) since both are younger teams.

The Rams are exhibiting a high-octane offense built around QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley, and have pieces in place to be competitive for years. Their future might be now.  Likewise, the Vikings have had a strong enough defense to weather an ever-changing quarterback situation (Case Keenum? Teddy Bridgewater?). Both teams also have clear paths to winning their divisions.

Super Bowl LII will take place Feb. 4, 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.