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Gronkowski cleared to play in Super Bowl after concussion

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared from the concussion protocol and will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Gronkowski participated fully in practice on Thursday. Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise also practiced after being cleared from the concussion protocol. Malcolm Butler (illness) and Brandon King (knee) also participated in the workout.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

Gronk said he is “ready to roll” and has no limitations. He had been sidelined since taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jacksonville’s Barry Church in the first half of New England’s AFC championship game win.

The All-Pro tight end missed last year’s Super Bowl win over Atlanta after undergoing back surgery.

Gronkowski led the team in receiving during the regular season with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

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Slow starters: Pats have no 1st quarter SB points with Brady

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Tom Brady has accomplished just about everything when it comes to playing in the Super Bowl.

His five titles and four Super Bowl MVPs are more than any other quarterback. He has posted the two biggest comeback wins in Super Bowl history, including last year’s rally from 25 points down to beat Atlanta. He has thrown for more yards or touchdowns than any quarterback on the biggest stage.

Perhaps the only accomplishment missing seems like a relatively simple one: leading a first-quarter scoring drive.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

In one of the more surprising Super Bowl stats, the Patriots have failed to score a single point in the first quarter in their seven Super Bowl trips in the Brady-Bill Belichick era.

“We’re trying to score every time we take the field,” Brady said. “There’s a little caveat to that in my opinion. In 2007, it was our first drive of the game, it just happened to be the first play of the second quarter.

“But it was the first time we touched it. So we did score when we got it first. But I’d love to score 21 points in the first quarter if we can but obviously this defense can make it really tough for us.”

The Patriots did score on that first possession in their first meeting against the Giants. But because New York held the ball for 9:59 to open the game with a field-goal drive, Laurence Maroney’s 1-yard run came on the first play of the second quarter.

The first-quarter scoring woes in the Super Bowl led to a memorable moment from an NFL Network documentary about last year’s title of linebackers coach Brian Flores addressing a banquet to honor the team.

“Coach Belichick, prior to the game, looked right at Tom Brady and goes `Tom, we’ve been to six Super Bowls together, and we’ve never scored a point in the first quarter. Can we get that done?”‘ Flores told the crowd. “I look around and I go, `Man, we’re going to score 30 points in the first quarter.”‘

Instead it didn’t happen. It was another first-quarter shutout as the Patriots went three-and-out the first time they had the ball and then stalled near midfield following two sacks on the second drive. The third drive ended when LeGarrette Blount fumbled on the second play of the second quarter.

Brady has been on the field for a first-quarter score when his intentional grounding penalty in the end zone against the Giants in 2012 led to a safety for New York. That was one of four scores in the first quarter against the Patriots in their seven trips with Belichick and Brady.

“Look, we try to score in every game,” Belichick said. “I know that’s probably hard to understand, but we try to go out and score and keep the other team from scoring. That’s our goal every game.”

It’s not as if slow starts are a chronic problem for Brady and the Patriots. Since his first season as the starter in 2001, New England leads the NFL on first-quarter scoring with 5.7 points per game.

The Patriots are only a tick behind that at 5.5 points per first quarter in the playoff rounds prior to the Super Bowl with Brady at quarterback.

But for some reason that all changes on the biggest stage, even though it hasn’t stopped the Patriots from winning five Super Bowl titles.

“I would say that’s the emphasis every week,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said. “We play better when we start fast, and that’s a big emphasis every week, not just in the Super Bowl but in the weeks prior to this. I mean, we have a better record when we’re playing fast and we get out to a good start, when we get points on the board on that first drive. So, we always like to do that.”

AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower contributed to this report

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Super Bowl 52 might come down to Gronk or Ertz

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Rob Gronkowski gets to play in this year’s Super Bowl after missing last year’s game with a bad back. Zach Ertz gets the chance to match his wife, Julie , a soccer star who’s already won a world championship.

Super Bowl 52 could come down to which of these terrific tight ends shines brighter.

The two had similar statistics and impact on their team’s fortunes this season.

Gronkowski led the New England Patriots with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

Ertz led the Philadelphia Eagles with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight TDs – double his previous career best.

Ertz also has 11 grabs for 125 yards in the playoffs and Gronkowski has seven catches for 102 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs despite missing most of the AFC championship against Jacksonville after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Barry Church before halftime.

That led to concerns Gronkowski might miss his second straight Super Bowl. He was sidelined for last year’s 34-28 overtime win against Atlanta after undergoing back surgery.

Gronk, however, returned to practice Thursday and said he is “ready to roll” after clearing the concussion protocol.

He said he never doubted he’d get to play Sunday.

“There was no reason to get frustrated,” Gronkowski said. “We had that extra week, which was awesome.”

The return of the All-Pro tight end gives Tom Brady another key option against a punishing Eagles defense that ranked fourth in the league.

“He’s a dynamic player. He means a ton to our offense. He really has since he got to our team. It’s always great when he’s out there,” Brady said.

“I’ve played with him a long time, I’ve thrown him a lot of footballs. He knows exactly what to do, he knows where to expect the ball, when to expect it. He’s just a tremendous player for our team.”

Ertz is just as important to Nick Foles and the Eagles’ offense.

The fifth-year pro made his first Pro Bowl this season, leading all NFC tight ends in receptions. He added eight catches for 93 yards in the NFC championship game against Minnesota.

Despite his breakout season and postseason, Ertz knows he won’t be the best tight end on the field Sunday. Gronkowski led all NFL tight ends in receiving yards for the fourth time.

Gronk is the gold standard.

“He’s a beast after the catch, I think that kind of separates him from all the other tight ends,” Ertz said. “And he’s also able to be open even when he’s not open because he’s got such a big frame and extremely good ball skills. And obviously Tom Brady is a phenomenal quarterback, too, but even without Tom, I think he would still be doing the same type of things regardless of where he was.”

Ertz knows the numbers off the top of his head, too.

“He has all the (single season) tight end records in the league,” Ertz said. He’s got the yards – 1,327 – and he’s got the touchdowns – 17 – he’s just a phenomenal player.”

With a pair of Super Bowl rings.

That’s what Ertz really covets, a world championship like the one his wife won in 2015 as a midfielder for the World Cup-winning U.S. national soccer team.

“Julie won a World Cup two years ago,” Ertz said, “so I need to hold up my end of the bargain.”

The “It” couple in the NFL was married last March after a romance that started when Julie, then Julie Johnston, was an emerging soccer star at Santa Clara and Zach was playing at Stanford.

The two were apart when the Eagles clinched their spot in the Super Bowl with a 38-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Julie was in San Diego for a national team match against Denmark. She was among the players who scored in the 5-1 victory.

Afterward, when she was told Zach was going to the Super Bowl, she burst into tears .

“Zach knew I was there obviously in spirit and I was praying for him and I was excited for him and cheering him from miles away,” she said.

“It’s a part of our job and we sacrifice a lot, and time’s the biggest thing. But to find out that they are going to the Super Bowl was amazing, exciting, emotional. It’s really cool to see your loved one’s hard work pay off.”

Ertz said it was hard for him watching other players’ celebrate with their wives “but seeing that video kind of showed me that she was struggling not being there, too.

“And it was extremely difficult for us not being together like it is anytime we’re not together. But she’s here now, I’m lucky she’s here. I’m blessed that she’s here and I’m excited hopefully to be able to experience that again.”

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AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed.

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