Dede Westbrook

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

Jaguars thump Texans 45-7 for 1st playoff berth since 2007

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Jacksonville Jaguars are returning to the playoffs for the first time in a decade thanks to a 45-7 drubbing of rival Houston on Sunday.

Once the NFL’s poster child for futility and a punchline for potential relocation, the Jaguars (10-4) are now one of the league’s top turnaround stories.

Blake Bortles threw three touchdowns passes, including two to a reserve receiver who slept in his car earlier this season. The Jaguars won for the seventh time in eight games to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2007.

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Bortles finished with a season-high 326 yards and the best QB rating (143.8) of his career, including 186 yards and a touchdown to rookie Keelan Cole. Primary punt returner Jaydon Mickens, who stepped in for injured starter Marqise Lee in the first quarter, caught four passes for 61 yards and two scores against the Texans (4-10).

It was a career day for Mickens, who said this week he spent nights in his car outside the facility while on the practice squad in September and October. He did it to save money, not knowing how long he would remain in town.

Now, he and teammates will be getting playoff checks.

That’s a huge change for Jacksonville. The Jaguars were an NFL-worst 22-74 over the previous six years, more a laughingstock than a postseason contender.

Owner Shad Khan fired coach Gus Bradley one year ago Sunday, following a close loss at Houston. Khan hired Tom Coughlin to oversee football decisions and made interim Doug Marrone the head coach. Coughlin and Marrone added several key players and changed the culture with a grueling offseason and training camp.

The Jags got off to an up-and-down start, but have hit their stride down the stretch.

Bortles has been better than expected of late, with seven touchdown passes and no turnovers the last three games. Cole and fellow rookie Dede Westbrook have been equally impressive.

The Jags didn’t even need rookie Leonard Fournette on Sunday. He was inactive because of a sore right quadriceps muscle.

Jacksonville’s defense has been the glue all season and was dominant again. Jacksonville led 31-0 for the biggest halftime lead in team history.

The defense had one lapse, when DeAndre Hopkins beat Jalen Ramsey for gains of 40 and 25 yards in the third quarter. The second one went for a touchdown.

T.J. Yates, making his first start since 2015, was mostly ineffective in place of Tom Savage (concussion). Yates completed 12 of 31 passes for 128 yards, with the TD and an interception.

INJURIES

Texans: Center Nick Martin (ankle) and right guard Jeff Allen (concussion) left in the second half. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney injured a shoulder making a touchdown-saving tackle on a punt return.

Jaguars: Lee injured his right ankle in the first quarter and was later ruled out. Ramsey (groin), defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (hamstring) and safety Peyton Thompson (foot) left the game but later returned.

QUESTIONABLE CALL

The Texans could have run out the clock trailing 24-0 late in the first half, but with 53 seconds remaining and three timeouts, coach Bill O’Brien decided to try to get something going. Yates threw an interception, and the Jaguars scored three plays later.

UP NEXT

Texans: Host Pittsburgh next Monday in the team’s home finale.

Jaguars: Play at San Francisco on Sunday.

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

Jaguars beat Seahawks 30-24, take outright lead in AFC South

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Blake Bortles threw two perfect passes for touchdowns, Jaydon Mickens set up another score with a 72-yard punt return and the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-24 on Sunday.

The Jaguars (9-4) intercepted three passes by Russell Wilson, including two on deep balls, and won for the sixth time in their last seven games. This victory, coupled with Tennessee’s loss at Arizona, moved Jacksonville atop the AFC South.

It’s the first time since 2010 that the Jaguars have had the outright division lead this late in a season.

The loss didn’t sit well with the Seahawks (8-5), who had two players ejected in the final minute. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was ejected for throwing a punch during a melee that included defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette.

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More pushing and shoving occurred after the next play, and defensive end Quinton Jefferson was tossed. Jefferson tried to climb into the stands after getting hit with what looked like a plastic bottle. Seattle coach Pete Carroll also got flagged for coming onto the field. Carroll walked into Seattle’s huddle, possibly to calm his players down.

The ending did little to ruin Jacksonville’s celebration, which had a lot to do with Bortles and the league’s top-ranked defense.

Coming off one of the best games of his career, a 30-10 victory against Indianapolis, Bortles was equally efficient and effective against the Seahawks.

Two of his better throws ended up in the end zone. He floated an 18-yarder early in the third quarter to rookie Dede Westbrook, the first for the 2016 Heisman Trophy finalist. Bortles’ second one was even better, a deep pass that hit Keelen Cole in stride and went for 75 yards.

Cole’s second touchdown in as many weeks came on the ensuing play after Wilson connected with Doug Baldwin for a 26-yard score that tied it at 10.

Jacksonville’s third-quarter surge wasn’t done. Mickens zigzagged through the middle of Seattle’s coverage team and ended up getting stopped at the 1-yard line. Leonard Fournette handled it from there, scoring for the ninth time this season.

That was enough – just barely – for Jacksonville’s defense.

Trailing 27-10, Wilson avoided a sack and hit Paul Richardson for a 61-yard score. Down 30-17, Wilson connected with Tyler Lockett for a 74-yarder.

Wilson had a final chance to rally his team, but he failed to convert a fourth-and-9 pass from the Seattle 43.

Fournette iced the victory by gaining 13 yards on a third-and-11 play with less than 2 minutes remaining.

RARE MISTAKES

Wilson’s early mistakes left Seattle in a huge hole. It was the first time this season and the fourth time in 105 career games that Wilson threw three interceptions. It was his first game with three or more picks since throwing five against Green Bay in December 2016.

INJURIES

Seahawks: All-everything LB Bobby Wagner left the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury and did not return. … LB K.J. Wright (concussion) left the field late in the third quarter and was ruled out. … RB Mike Davis (ribs) was knocked out briefly but returned.

Jaguars: RB Corey Grant injured his right shoulder while fumbling a kickoff. … TE Marcedes Lewis jammed a finger on his left hand. … WR Larry Pinkard left in the second quarter while being evaluated for a concussion and was ruled out at halftime. Jaguars played without speedy LB Telvin Smith (concussion).

UP NEXT

Seahawks: Host the Los Angeles Rams in game that could help determine the NFC West champion.

Jaguars: Wrap up a three-game homestand against Houston.

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