A.J. Green

Jaguars’ Ramsey relishes All-Pro matchup vs Steelers’ Brown

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Blake Bortles remembers the first time Jalen Ramsey got under his skin.

Bortles was trying to get through a two-minute drill during the 2016 season. It was a weekly walkthrough routine in which players were supposed to go half-speed while practicing plays. Normally, there’s no contact and every pass is complete.

At least that had been the case until Ramsey arrived.

Bortles threw several passes in Ramsey’s direction. The rookie intercepted or knocked down each one.

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It happened week after week until Bortles finally stopped throwing Ramsey’s way.

“It was so annoying,” Bortles recalled Thursday.

It also set the tone for Ramsey’s career. The trash-talking cornerback has a flair for frustrating quarterbacks and receivers and the ability to essentially shut down one side of the field. After 33 games, Ramsey’s already considered among the best players in franchise history – a 23-year-old rising star who openly aspires to be as good as Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and often looks the part.

“The best I’ve ever seen in person,” Bortles said. “He’s freakish.”

Ramsey is a major piece of Jacksonville’s defensive turnaround, and he’ll take center stage Sunday when the Jaguars (11-6) play in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs at Pittsburgh (13-3).

Ramsey will shadow Antonio Brown , widely considered the best receiver in the NFL.

All-Pro vs. All-Pro, undoubtedly the most intriguing matchup of the postseason game.

“It’s not many receivers I’m going to come in here in front of y’all and say they’re one of the best in the league,” Ramsey said. “He is, though. That’s the truth about him.”

Brown caught 10 passes for 157 yards in the first meeting against Jacksonville, which won 30-9 in early October. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Brown a staggering 19 times, with three of those ending up as interceptions.

“He’s an elite player,” Ramsey said. “Highly regarded by everybody, honestly, around the nation or maybe internationally. So, yeah, it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to be on our Ps and Qs and try to execute the game plan as best we can.”

Jacksonville’s game plan has changed slightly since the first meeting.

Ramsey and fellow Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye played sides to start the season, covering whatever receiver lined up in front of them. But Ramsey has since started following the top wideout for every opponent all over the field, and he’s had rousing success against Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen and San Francisco’s Marquise Goodwin.

Ramsey angered Green so much with his constant verbal jabs that the mild-mannered receiver grabbed the cocky cornerback in a headlock and tossed him to the ground. Both players were ejected.

“He’ll get in a guy’s head now,” linebacker Telvin Smith said.

Added Bouye: “Everything he’s accomplished, he’s worked for it. He’s capitalized. He’s learned from his mistakes and he keeps getting better week in and week out.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Ramsey has allowed 47 receptions for 586 yards and three touchdowns this season. He has five interceptions, including one to seal a 10-3 victory against Buffalo in a wild-card game.

It was about what the Jaguars have come to expect from the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft. He has a rare combination of size, speed, instincts, ball skills and body control. And he’s no longer a rookie.

“You see the maturity in the meetings and you see the maturity on the grass,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash said. “We always knew he was a freak athlete and we always knew he could play. But that maturity level is getting better and better each day.”

His matchup against Brown will be his next – and maybe his best – challenge.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable thing,” Jaguars safety Barry Church said. “I’m just glad I’m on the field for it. Those guys, they both like to talk a bit of trash and they’re going to be matched up with each other the whole game. It’s going to be a great one. We’ll see who gets the better of the two, but my money’s on Jalen.”

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

Dalton, Bengals have ‘good outing’ in loss at Jags (VIDEO)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Cincinnati Bengals were so sharp against Jacksonville that Andy Dalton and several teammates were done long before halftime.

Dalton led the Bengals to two touchdowns in three possessions, earning him a little extra rest in a 26-21 loss to the Jaguars in the preseason Sunday night.

“It was a good outing for us,” said Dalton, who completed 6 of 10 passes for 77 yards and a TD. “Two touchdowns in the first half of a preseason game is pretty good, and we got them both ways. … It’s a good feeling to do it both ways.”

The Bengals (1-2) felt good on both sides of the ball, too. Dalton found Giovani Bernard for a 19-yard score on a third-down play, and then Jeremy Hill capped a 9-minute drive with a 1-yard scramble to the pylon. Defensively, the Bengals held Jacksonville to just 90 yards in the first half. Jacksonville’s first three drives: turnover, three-and-out and three-and-out.

Cincy’s only concern in the regular-season dress rehearsal was the health of three Pro Bowlers.

Receiver A.J. Green left in the first quarter with a bruised right knee, but said he’s fine. Cornerback Adam Jones strained his right calf in preseason warmups and did not play. And special teams ace Cedric Peerman broke his left forearm and could be out for the season.

“It’s unfortunate guys have injuries, but you can’t worry about that,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to worry just about the stuff you can control.”

Safety Tashaun Gipson (bruised knee) was Jacksonville’s only injured starter.

The Jaguars (1-2) had bigger problems – the offense and defense both failed to show – that raised questions about what’s supposed to the franchise’s most talented team in nearly a decade.

T.J. Yeldon fumbled on the opening possession. Center Brandon Linder and quarterback Blake Bortles each were flagged for false starts to open drives. And the left side of Jacksonville’s revamped offensive line was mostly manhandled.

“We kind of killed ourselves. We did some stupid things, really, at every position,” Bortles said. “They didn’t do necessarily anything to stop up, which is a good sign because it’s a good defense. … We were comfortable and confident in what we were doing. We just didn’t execute it and get things done.”

DEBUTS

Bengals: WR Brandon LaFell caught one pass in his Bengals debut. Signed in free agency to help replace Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, LaFell also drew a pass-interference penalty that set up a score.

Jaguars: Playing his first game since tearing a knee ligament last October, LT Kelvin Beachum looked rusty. And Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, looked lost at times at LG.

ROOKIE WATCH

Bengals: WR Alex Erickson scored for the third straight game, stating his case to make the team. Erickson caught a 21-yard TD pass from AJ McCarron early in the third quarter. It was his second TD catch of the preseason. He also returned a punt for a touchdown.

Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue got the start ahead of Dante Fowler Jr., but only because the Jaguars wanted to see Ngakoue get some snaps with the first-team defense. Ngakoue finished with two tackles.

POSITION BATTLES

Bengals: Second-round pick WR Tyler Boyd, vying to start opposite Green, had a 9-yard reception.

Jaguars: Fourth-year RB Joe Banyard ran 11 times for 54 yards, including a 7-yard TD run in the third quarter, and had his most extensive work of the preseason. Banyard and Corey Grant are competing to be the fourth-string back.

INJURY UPDATE

Bengals: LB Vontaze Burfict and TE Tyler Eifert were among a dozen players ruled out before the game.

Jaguars: Eight players were ruled out beforehand, including DT Roy Miller, rookie DT Sheldon Day and FS Peyton Thompson.

QUOTABLE

Bengals: “I do feel faster this year because I feel healthier.” – Hill.

Jaguars: “We played bad at every position and usually that is what happens when you play bad: you do not score a lot of points.” – Bortles.

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