Devin McCourty

Gronk sits, Brady limited as Patriots return to practice

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski sat out practice Thursday with a concussion and quarterback Tom Brady was limited with his right-hand injury as New England returned to the practice field in preparation for its Super Bowl matchup with Philadelphia.

Gronkowski suffered his concussion after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit early in the Patriots’ AFC championship game win over Jacksonville. Brady got several stitches in his hand after getting hurt in practice leading up to that game.

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Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise (concussion) and Malcolm Brown (foot) also did not participate in Thursday’s practice. Safety Devin McCourty (shoulder), running back Mike Gillislee (knee) and offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle (knee) were all limited participants.

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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.

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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

Gronk: Belichick knows to how help Pats avoid distractions

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Rob Gronkowski says coach Bill Belichick makes it easy for the New England Patriots to ignore distractions such as the one created by last week’s ESPN report.

“Throughout my years here I’ve seen a lot of negative, a lot of positive,” Gronkowski said Tuesday as the Patriots prepared for Saturday night’s divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.

“The reputation that Coach tries to get us to have is just ignore the noise – ignore the noise from the outside and I feel like that’s what myself and a lot of other players have been doing.

“You just gotta ignore the noise and just focus on what we’ve been doing all year and that’s preparing hard, studying our opponent, getting ready, mentally and physically for the big game, so what’s going on on the outside, as a team, as an organization, just gotta keep grinding, keep going, keep doing our job.”

Gronkowski, healthy this season after missing last year’s Super Bowl-winning run, said such “noise” will “if anything it’s just going to bring us closer and it’s going to bond us together.”

The report concerned the relationship among team owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Tom Brady, focusing on Brady’s role in the trading of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round draft pick.

Earlier Tuesday, Brady reacted strongly to the claim he was involved in moving Garoppolo, who won five straight games for his new team down the stretch of the season.

“I think that’s just such a poor characterization of anything. In 18 years, I’ve never celebrated when someone has been traded, been cut,” Brady said on his weekly appearance on Boston radio station WEEI.

“I would say that’s disappointing to hear that someone would express that, or a writer would express that, because it’s so far from what my beliefs are about my teammates.”

He continued, saying, “I would never, ever feel that way about when Jimmy got traded, when Jacoby (Brissett) got traded. I’ve kept in touch with all those guys. When Matt Cassel was gone. All these guys I’ve worked with, I felt like I had such a great relationship with all the quarterbacks I’ve worked with. I kept in touch with basically everybody. So to characterize that as a certain way is just completely, completely wrong.”

Gronkowski was asked if Brady is amped up even more than usual.

“I’ve gotten that question many times throughout my career and I’ve said this many times – it’s hard to see him go to another level of intensity because he’s always intense, he’s always preparing hard,” Gronkowski said.

“I’ve just seen him do the same old that he does every week, prepare hard, practice hard and get ready for the game.”

Defensive captain Devin McCourty was asked about the ESPN article.

“I don’t care about it and I think a lot of guys don’t really care about what goes on outside and who writes what and if we stink, if we’re great – it doesn’t matter.

“So, I just think guys are motivated by playing for each other, their families more than an ESPN article.

“I think it’s a great thing for our fans and people outside. I think they enjoy all of that, but I think for us, it’s just going out there and playing for each other.

“An ESPN article doesn’t help us when we go out there and it’s negative-9 degrees. Like you’re not going to be motivated to prove an article wrong. You’re just having fun playing with the guys.”

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks, in his first year with the team, was asked how they keep distractions out of their locker room.

“I think because the guys listen. Coach has been doing this for a while and he knows what the potential distractions can be,” Cooks said.

“I think he does a great job on letting us know what they are and as players we listen to him and being coachable and tune out the noise.”

NOTES: Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey, talking with New England reporters via a conference call, was asked what affect the ESPN story might have on the Patriots, said, “You know what, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know anything about it. I’m not a social media guy. I don’t know enough, I really don’t, to make any comment about something like that.” … Gronkowski, talking about making AP All-Pro for the fourth time, said, “It’s definitely an honor, a humbling honor, but it means nothing now to tell you the truth, it means nothing. It’s the playoffs now, it’s one-and-done if you lose, so you just keep on preparing, looking forward. … “I’m just looking forward to this game, man – super excited to be back out there with the team.”

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