Comeback Kings: Patriots thrive at late-game playoff rallies

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Tom Brady is the comeback king in the playoffs.

From his past two Super Bowl wins to the AFC championship game rally against Jacksonville that got the Patriots to the NFL’s biggest stage for the third in four seasons, no quarterback has engineered more late-game playoff comebacks than Brady.

But he is not alone. Whether it was Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round against Kansas City earlier this postseason, or Russell Wilson against Green Bay in (2015) or Andrew Luck against the Chiefs the previous year, there have been as many playoff comebacks from at least 10 points down in the fourth quarter the past five seasons as there were the previous 26 seasons.

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“What happens is instead of playing the team, they start playing the clock. Sometimes you win and sometimes you go against a bad boy like Tom Brady and you get burned,” former Colts receiver and current NFL Network analyst Reggie Wayne said. “A lot of that falls onto the coaches. The players are going to run what the coaches call.”

Whether it’s Atlanta failing to run the ball enough late in last year’s Super Bowl that helped the Patriots rally from 28-3 down to win in overtime or Seattle’s decision to pass at the goal line instead of hand it to Marshawn Lynch back in 2015, questionable coaching decisions have contributed to some of those comebacks.

But nobody is better at exploiting those mistakes than Brady and the Patriots. He has four playoff wins in games he trailed by at least 10 points in the fourth quarter, including the “Tuck Rule” game against Oakland in 2002. No other quarterback has led more than one such comeback in playoff history.

“There’s a great belief no matter what the circumstances, that we have enough to overcome it,” Brady said. “I don’t think we want to try to overcome that again this year. That was pretty tough to do. Hopefully we can get a lead, play from ahead, play on our terms.”

The Patriots are comfortable when that happens. They are 6-6 in the playoffs when trailing after three quarters under Brady and coach Bill Belichick, while the rest of the NFL has a 27-140 record in that span with only Russell Wilson and Eli Manning having more than two fourth-quarter comebacks with four each.

Not that it is by design.

“That whole comeback thing is overrated,” said NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest, who won three Super Bowl titles as Brady’s teammate in New England. “Players can’t go in and say, `Hey, we want to win this game in dramatic fashion, be down 11 with eight minutes to go and come back and have the crowd go crazy.’ You want to be in control, play a certain way and be in front. Because that changes how you play the game.”

The biggest deficit overcome to win a Super Bowl before last season was just 10 points and the Patriots were the first team to overcome a deficit that big in the second half when they did it against the Seahawks three years ago.

The only other teams to come back from 10 points down to win a Super Bowl faced those deficits early in the second quarter with New Orleans rallying against Indianapolis in 2010 and Washington against Denver in 1988.

Brady’s postseason passer rating when trailing in fourth quarter the past four years is a staggering 121.2, compared to 75.6 for the rest of the NFL.

In last year’s Super Bowl comeback, the Falcons appeared to tire and struggled to generate pressure, sending more than four pass rushers on just two of 24 pass plays in the fourth quarter.

The Jaguars also only brought more than four rushers on two of 15 fourth-quarter pass plays in the AFC title game when New England came back from 20-10 down to win 24-20.

“What teams do wrong is they go zone,” Wayne said. “He’s going to pick zone apart all day, every day. He’s going to spread you out and they’re the best at creating mismatches.”

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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.

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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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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.

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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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