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

Ted Thompson out as Packers GM, now senior adviser

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GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Ted Thompson is out as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, but will remain as senior adviser of football operations.

It’s a big change after one of the league’s most successful teams missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record (7-9) for the first time since 2008.

President/CEO Mark Murphy announced the move on Tuesday. The Packers’ Super Bowl victory in 2010 was the highlight of Thompson’s 13-year tenure.

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“Under his guidance, the Packers enjoyed a remarkable run of success, one that included our 13th world championship, four NFC Championship appearances and eight consecutive postseason berths,” Murphy said in a statement. “The organization, our fans and our community were fortunate to have had one of the NFL’s all-time great general managers leading our football operations.”

Green Bay lost its season finale 35-11 on Sunday to the Detroit Lions. The Packers slipped below .500 this season after quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed nine games with a collarbone injury.

The offense struggled with backup Brett Hundley, and a defense stocked with high draft picks failed to improve again.

“This is a special place and we’ve had some success along the way, but it’s the relationships that I value most,” Thompson said in a statement. “This is the players’ game and I appreciate all the sacrifices they have made for the Packers. I look forward to supporting this team in my new role as we strive to win another championship.”

Several players spoke about the transition as they cleaned out their lockers on Tuesday.

Kicker Mason Crosby, one of the longest-tenured players, said he “hoped the new guy likes what he sees.”

Veteran safety Morgan Burnett said he respected Thompson and what he did to build the team and wished him the best.

Thompson took over on Jan. 14, 2005, and selected Rodgers in the first round of the draft that year. He hired Mike McCarthy as head coach the following year.

“It’s tough to see him step down. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, taking a shot on me coming out as a free agent meant a little more,” said guard Lane Taylor, a fifth-year player who rose from undrafted free agent to starter.

But standards are high in a city nicknamed “Titletown.” The Packers are the only publicly-owned team in the NFL and play in the league’s smallest market, about a two-hour drive north from Milwaukee.

Thompson has long been a target for some restless fans eager for the club to take a more aggressive approach in free agency.

A defense plagued by injuries at cornerback had some moments trying to adjust to the loss of Rodgers on the other side of the ball. But production slacked off toward the end of the season. Green Bay lacked a consistent pass rush and didn’t force a turnover over the season’s final three weeks.

Green Bay, which was also 22nd in defense in 2016, used its top draft pick in each of the last six seasons on defensive players. The Packers were 15th in defense in both 2014 and 2015.

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

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.

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