Martellus Bennett

Brady practices without glove as Gronk returns to practice

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Two of the New England Patriots’ most important players are getting healthier as they prepare to head to Minneapolis for Super Bowl week.

After getting stitches in his right hand and thumb prior to the AFC championship game last week, quarterback Tom Brady was on the practice field Saturday, gripping the ball without a glove on his throwing hand. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also was at practice, returning to workouts after starting the week in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Both are positive signs for New England, which has just one practice remaining in Foxborough before the team heads to Minnesota to resume its Super Bowl preparations. Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who also missed practice time this week with a concussion, joined Gronk in the team stretching period that is open to reporters.

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Gronkowski hadn’t been on the practice field since his second-quarter exit from the AFC title game following a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church.

“It’s always great to have him out there. He’s a great player, a great person, a great teammate and a big part of what we do,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “It obviously hurts when he’s not out there for a lot of reasons. But he’s doing the best he can do and we’re all hopeful.”

While Gronkowski and Wise were on the field, it’s unclear whether they have been officially cleared from the protocol. The team isn’t required to file its next injury report until Wednesday.

Gronk played just eight games last season and missed the Patriots’ entire playoff run after undergoing season-ending back surgery.

Since the start of last season, New England is 12-1 without Gronk. But last season it had Martellus Bennett to fill in the gap without him. Bennett signed with Green Bay in the offseason, before being released by the Packers in November. He then re-signed with the Patriots, but only appeared in two games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Brady said he wants to spend the rest of the time leading up to the Super Bowl avoiding all possible distractions.

That includes not talking about a new series that debuted on Facebook recently and provides viewers a rare glimpse at his life off the field.

“What? Let’s talk about distractions,” Brady joked when he was asked about the series Saturday. “We’ll stick to football this week, too. I like that no distractions part.”

Though this will be Brady’s eighth trip to the Super Bowl, the 40-year-old said he still has an appreciation for what it takes to be playing at this point of the season.

“I’ve never taken anything like this for granted, and I think we’re all very fortunate to be in this game,” he said. “Being a part of a couple of these losses, those are pretty tough to swallow, but I think you realize how much effort you have to put in to prepare. It’s a very unique environment, unique game, and you have to be at your best. But in order to do that, you have to prepare as well as you possibly can.”

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Bears fire coach John Fox after a 5-11 season

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) The Chicago Bears fired John Fox on Monday after a 5-11 season, ending one of the least successful coaching stints in team history.

The Bears announced the dismissal one day after a loss at NFC North champion Minnesota.

Chicago has had four consecutive losing seasons – each with 10 or more losses. The Bears haven’t finished above .500 since they let Lovie Smith go following a 10-6 finish in 2012. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010.

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Fox was 14-34 in his three years with Chicago, a .292 winning percentage that ranks as the second lowest for the Bears. Only Abe Gibron was worse – 11-30-1 (.274) from 1972-74.

Fox likes to say that this is a “results-based business,” and the Bears clearly did not have much to show on that count. Fox’s conservative approach and some questionable decisions during games were also sore spots.

He is 133-123 in 16 seasons as a head coach and is one of six coaches to lead two teams to Super Bowl appearances, joining Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, Dick Vermeil and Mike Holmgren.

Fox helped orchestrate quick turnarounds while leading Carolina and Denver to a combined six division titles and seven playoff appearances in 13 years before he took over Chicago in January 2015. But his time with the Bears was forgettable.

Hired shortly after the Bears brought in general manager Ryan Pace, Fox helped restore some of the professionalism in the locker room that was missing under former GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman.

The Bears went from six wins in 2015 to three in 2016 to five. They were 3-15 against the NFC North and dropped all six division games this year.

Injuries exposing a lack of depth have been a major issue since the regime change.

The Bears have had some big hits in the draft such as star running back Jordan Howard (2016, fifth round) and notable misses such as oft-injured receiver Kevin White (2015, first round). They have had a shaky record in free agency and struggled to replace some key players no longer with the team such as receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett and kicker Robbie Gould.

Mike Glennon – signed to take over for Jay Cutler as the starting quarterback – was benched after struggling through the first four games this season. That forced Chicago to go with No. 2 overall draft pick Mitchell Trubisky and abandon the plan to use this as sort of a redshirt season for a player with just 13 college starts at North Carolina.

The Bears beat AFC North champion Pittsburgh in September and posted consecutive wins against Baltimore and Carolina in October. But it was a rough season overall. While Trubisky showed some promise, he also struggled at times. It didn’t help that he had no reliable receivers and was playing behind a banged-up line.

A loss to Green Bay following a bye really turned up the heat. Not only were the Packers missing the injured Aaron Rodgers, Fox had an ill-advised replay challenge near the goal line backfire into a turnover by the Bears.

Fox also left himself open to second-guessing in a 15-14 loss at home to San Francisco. Fox could have given his team a chance to win with a late touchdown drive by letting the 49ers score with 1 1/2 minutes remaining. It would have put San Francisco up by five and left Chicago with time.

Instead, Gould made a 24-yard field goal in the final seconds to give the 49ers their second win.

More AP NFL: https://pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Football is back! Here are five things to watch this NFL season

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After an offseason filled with players returning from retirement, celebration rule changes, and Gronk being Gronk, football is back!

Before the Hall of Fame game gets underway, here are five storylines to watch as the new football season approaches.

Heavy is the head that wears the Star

Dallas entered last season with a rookie backup quarterback that wasn’t expected to see a lot of time until Tony Romo got injured and a rookie running back that was supposed to make an immediate impact. Now, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott enter this season with expectations the size of Texas. The Cowboys are looking to win the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, or when TLC’s “Waterfalls” was the No. 2 song on the Billboard charts.

Undefeated Patriots? It could happen…

Even Seahawks fans can admit that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time. The amazing thing about the Patriots is their ability to reload (specifically from the Buffalo Bills, but that’s a longer story). Lose Martellus Bennett? Bring in Dwayne Allen. Lose LeGarrette Blount? Pick up Rex Burkhead. Top it off with an electric Brandin Cooks and the NFL’s best offense may be even better in 2017.

Falcons’ Super Bowl hangover recovery

28-3. The rallying cry of Patriots fans everywhere that makes Falcons fans cringe and want to crawl into a hole. Everyone talks about the Super Bowl hangover, but will a series of changes, including offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan departing to run his own team in San Francisco, be enough for the Falcons to return to the Super Bowl? Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will have a major role in that.

Kaepernick’s role

As of this post, Colin Kaepernick is still without a spot on an NFL roster. That could change at any moment. Kaepernick potentially has two landing spots: Miami Dolphins or Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco has been dealing with a back injury in camp, and the Dolphins are fearing the worst with Ryan Tannehill‘s knee injury Thursday. On the field, Kaepernick makes sense for both teams as a backup quarterback. But will one of these teams actually sign the former 49ers quarterback?

Raiders’ Resurgence

Before the Falcons’ brutal Super Bowl collapse, the Raiders held the crown for the most devastating way to have your season end, with quarterback Derek Carr breaking his leg two games before the playoffs started. Now, with Carr back and healthy, the Raiders look poised to make a big run and make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2002. One person who remembers that run well? Oakland native and new Raider Marshawn Lynch, who was a student at Oakland Tech high school.

Just think of it this way-you’ll now have football every Thursday until January, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the season.

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