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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

O’Brien says he’ll never resign as coach of the Texans

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HOUSTON (AP) Coach Bill O’Brien was emphatic on Monday about his desire to remain with the Houston Texans, a day after the team dropped to 4-10 with an embarrassing 45-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“I will never quit as the head football coach of the Houston Texans,” he said. “Ever.”

O’Brien, who has one more season left on his contract, was asked if he had thought about resigning after the Texans complete what will be the first losing season in his time with the team.

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“I’m not a quitter,” he said. “I was raised in a family that believed in family, faith, education and never quit. So, I never will.”

O’Brien’s job security has become a topic of discussion in recent weeks as injuries and inconsistent quarterback play have led to four straight losses, one win in the last eight games. He spent a sizable chunk of his media availability Monday discussing his future, his relationship with general manager Rick Smith, and whether he would like to sign an extension to remain with the Texans.

He dismissed the notion speculation about his job is getting to him.

“All I’m worried about is this team,” he said. “All I’m worried about is this team and this coaching staff. That’s really all I really care about.”

The Texans are trying to regroup and focus on how they can play better before they host the Pittsburgh Steelers next Monday. They’ll likely have to do it with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, who struggled Sunday in his first start since 2015. O’Brien said Monday there was a chance Tom Savage could miss the rest of the season while recovering from a concussion, leaving Yates as the team’s best option at the position.

Yates was 12 of 31 for just 128 yards with a touchdown and an interception Sunday. He could have to work behind a makeshift offensive line against the Steelers after right guard Jeff Allen sustained a concussion against the Jaguars, and center Nick Martin suffered what O’Brien called a “serious” ankle injury.

If Allen can’t play the Texans will look to rookie Julien Davenport, who has appeared in nine games with two starts, to fill in. O’Brien evaluated the work he did on Sunday after the injuries.

“He did OK,” O’Brien said. “He’s young. He’s been injured. He’s going to be good. He’s a great kid. Very focused guy … it was some good, some not so good, and he was blocking on some real good guys. So, I think it’ll be a good experience for him.”

O’Brien believes his team has continued to play hard despite the poor results and expects that to continue in Houston’s last two games.

“We’ve got to play better,” he said. “It’s not a matter of effort. I just went through the tape. I looked at it real close. These guys are playing hard, it’s just a matter of execution and better play calls, and just trying to do a better job. I just want them to continue to be who they are, which they’re tough, they’re competitive guys, and they have a lot of pride. I just want them to continue to play hard.”

One player who has undoubtedly continued to compete at a high level despite Houston’s struggles is receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He’s one of the few bright spots in a season been marred by injuries to stars J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and Whitney Mercilus. Hopkins leads the NFL with a franchise-record 12 touchdown receptions, and his 1,313 yards receiving are second to Antonio Brown despite playing with three quarterbacks this season.

“I think he’s the best receiver in the league,” O’Brien said. “He’s big. He’s strong. He’s got great ability on the sideline. He’s such a great competitor on Sundays. He wants the ball. He wants the ball thrown to him.”

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

Garoppolo leads 49ers to 26-16 win over Texans

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HOUSTON — After years of struggles at the position, the San Francisco 49ers may have finally found their quarterback of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo.

But even after leading the team to its second straight win, 26-16, over the Houston Texans on Sunday, the former backup to Tom Brady wasn’t convinced the job is his to keep.

“We’ll see what happens this week. That’s on (coach) Kyle (Shanahan),” he said when asked about starting next week. “I don’t know.”

It’s pretty safe to say that Garoppolo will be under center for the rest of the season after throwing for a career-high 334 yards and a touchdown as the 49ers (3-10) won their second straight game.

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Garoppolo was 20 of 33 in his second start for a team that hasn’t had consistent play at quarterback since Colin Kaepernick‘s great 2013 season. Acquired before the trade deadline from New England, Garoppolo threw for 293 yards in his debut with the team last week to help the 49ers to a 15-14 win at Chicago.

“You’ve got to have guys who are fearless, can hang in there and keep their eyes down the field. He does that very, very well,” Shanahan said. “But he also has the foot quickness and agility to get out of there and extend some plays.”

The game was tied when he found Garrett Celek on a 6-yard touchdown pass with about two minutes left in the third quarter to make it 23-16. Celek had a big play earlier in that drive on a 61-yard reception on third down.

“We knew it was kind of feast or famine against this defense because they’re very physical,” Shanahan said. “But sometimes, you get your opportunities, and we were fortunate enough to come down with them.”

DeAndre Hopkins had 149 yards receiving and two touchdowns, but lost a fumble in the fourth quarter with the Texans down by 7 . San Francisco added 41-yard field goal after that to secure the victory.

T.J. Yates threw for 175 yards and two touchdowns after Tom Savage left with a concussion in the second quarter. Texans (4-9) lost their third straight and sixth in seven games.

Savage was injured when he was driven to the ground on a hit by Elvis Dumervil with about nine minutes left in the second. Replays showed Savage looking dazed after his head hit the ground with both of his arms lifted upward shaking.

He was taken to the medical tent, where he stayed for less than three minutes before returning to the bench and going back in for the next series. He threw two incompletions on that drive, and Houston’s team doctor approached him after he returned to the sideline after that possession.

Savage tried repeatedly to enter the game on the next series. But a team official kept grabbing Savage’s jersey and finally his arm and pulled him away from the field. He then could be seen arguing with that person and the team’s trainer before being escorted to the locker room.

Coach Bill O’Brien said he was evaluated for a concussion after the hit and cleared to return, but that he was evaluated again after he returned because “because of what they saw,” without providing details of what that was.

“They try to make the best decision for the player,” O’Brien said. “Whatever they see and the testing that they do they try to make the best decision with the player and they weren’t satisfied with the results of the second test so they decided to pull him, and that’s when he went into the locker room.”

Yates, who hadn’t appeared in a game since Nov. 16, 2015, was signed last month after Deshaun Watson went out with a knee injury. Houston went up 16-13 when Hopkins grabbed a 29-yard touchdown reception on the Texans’ first drive of the second half.

The 49ers took a 10-3 lead when Carlos Hyde ran 2 yards for a touchdown with about 2 1/2 minutes left in the first half.

Yates connected with Hopkins for a 7-yard touchdown on Houston’s next drive, but the kick failed to leave Houston down 10-9.

Robbie Gould added a 35-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter to leave San Francisco up 13-9.

INJURIES: Houston offensive tackle Kendall Lamm sustained a concussion in the first quarter. The Texans have had six players sustain concussions in the last two games combined. … 49ers rookie receiver Victor Bolden injured his ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return. … San Francisco cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon injured his knee in the fourth quarter.

MEMORIES: Sunday was Shanahan’s first visit to NRG Stadium since losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl when he was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons. He said he didn’t think about that game, where the Falcons blew a 25-point lead, until he got to the stadium on Sunday.

“We got off the bus and were walking across the field, and that’s when I remembered,” he said. “I got some feelings of that. I had some real good feelings in that game, but not toward the end. The feelings today were definitely much better at the end.”

UP NEXT

49ERS: Host the Titans next Sunday.

TEXANS: Visit Jaguars next Sunday.

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