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’ Ramsey relishes All-Pro matchup vs Steelers’ Brown

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Blake Bortles remembers the first time Jalen Ramsey got under his skin.

Bortles was trying to get through a two-minute drill during the 2016 season. It was a weekly walkthrough routine in which players were supposed to go half-speed while practicing plays. Normally, there’s no contact and every pass is complete.

At least that had been the case until Ramsey arrived.

Bortles threw several passes in Ramsey’s direction. The rookie intercepted or knocked down each one.

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It happened week after week until Bortles finally stopped throwing Ramsey’s way.

“It was so annoying,” Bortles recalled Thursday.

It also set the tone for Ramsey’s career. The trash-talking cornerback has a flair for frustrating quarterbacks and receivers and the ability to essentially shut down one side of the field. After 33 games, Ramsey’s already considered among the best players in franchise history – a 23-year-old rising star who openly aspires to be as good as Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and often looks the part.

“The best I’ve ever seen in person,” Bortles said. “He’s freakish.”

Ramsey is a major piece of Jacksonville’s defensive turnaround, and he’ll take center stage Sunday when the Jaguars (11-6) play in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs at Pittsburgh (13-3).

Ramsey will shadow Antonio Brown , widely considered the best receiver in the NFL.

All-Pro vs. All-Pro, undoubtedly the most intriguing matchup of the postseason game.

“It’s not many receivers I’m going to come in here in front of y’all and say they’re one of the best in the league,” Ramsey said. “He is, though. That’s the truth about him.”

Brown caught 10 passes for 157 yards in the first meeting against Jacksonville, which won 30-9 in early October. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Brown a staggering 19 times, with three of those ending up as interceptions.

“He’s an elite player,” Ramsey said. “Highly regarded by everybody, honestly, around the nation or maybe internationally. So, yeah, it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to be on our Ps and Qs and try to execute the game plan as best we can.”

Jacksonville’s game plan has changed slightly since the first meeting.

Ramsey and fellow Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye played sides to start the season, covering whatever receiver lined up in front of them. But Ramsey has since started following the top wideout for every opponent all over the field, and he’s had rousing success against Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen and San Francisco’s Marquise Goodwin.

Ramsey angered Green so much with his constant verbal jabs that the mild-mannered receiver grabbed the cocky cornerback in a headlock and tossed him to the ground. Both players were ejected.

“He’ll get in a guy’s head now,” linebacker Telvin Smith said.

Added Bouye: “Everything he’s accomplished, he’s worked for it. He’s capitalized. He’s learned from his mistakes and he keeps getting better week in and week out.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Ramsey has allowed 47 receptions for 586 yards and three touchdowns this season. He has five interceptions, including one to seal a 10-3 victory against Buffalo in a wild-card game.

It was about what the Jaguars have come to expect from the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft. He has a rare combination of size, speed, instincts, ball skills and body control. And he’s no longer a rookie.

“You see the maturity in the meetings and you see the maturity on the grass,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash said. “We always knew he was a freak athlete and we always knew he could play. But that maturity level is getting better and better each day.”

His matchup against Brown will be his next – and maybe his best – challenge.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable thing,” Jaguars safety Barry Church said. “I’m just glad I’m on the field for it. Those guys, they both like to talk a bit of trash and they’re going to be matched up with each other the whole game. It’s going to be a great one. We’ll see who gets the better of the two, but my money’s on Jalen.”

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Jaguars QB Bortles says criticism will ‘probably never stop’

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Blake Bortles‘ first postseason victory came with a hefty dose of criticism, maybe even more than ever before.

The Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback handled it as well as he did Buffalo’s pass rush.

“It’ll probably never stop,” Bortles said Wednesday. “There’s people that think LeBron James sucks, so if that happens, I’m sure there will be a lot of people that always think I suck.”

The latest insults came from Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard and retired NFL quarterback Chris Simms.

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Byard told the Tennessean this week he wants to make New England’s Tom Brady looks like Bortles. Byard intercepted two of Bortles’ passes in the regular-season finale in Nashville.

“This is a playoff game, so I don’t really care if it was Joe Montana,” Byard said. “You know what I’m saying? I’m trying to go out there and win the game. I want to make him look like Blake Bortles if I can and try to catch a couple picks. Tom Brady is a great quarterback, but it’s a playoff game.”

Simms told The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz on Tuesday that Bortles is 70th in his NFL quarterback rankings, below backups Chad Henne (Jacksonville), T.J. Yates (Houston) and Nathan Peterman (Buffalo).

Former Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli called into the show to defend Bortles, saying it’s “the most ignorant, asinine statement I’ve ever heard.”

None of it seemed to bother Bortles, who has been sullied all season .

Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey told a Nashville radio station last week that “as long as Bortles is back there, if the ballgame is in his hands, he’s going to choke.”

Bortles also has been publicly ripped by Houston defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle safety Earl Thomas and Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the past two months.

“Players or peers talking about you is a little new,” Bortles said last week.

Bortles’ performance against the Bills was far from his best.

He completed 12 of 23 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. He never settled into a rhythm, and with the game tied in the second half, he stopped throwing and starting scrambling. He finished with 88 yards on the ground, becoming the first quarterback since Atlanta’s Michael Vick in 2004 to win a playoff game with more rushing yards than passing.

“There’s two different ways to look at it,” Bortles said. “You kind of look at the numbers and look at the game and say, `You played terrible.’ Or you look at it and say, `Things weren’t going right here and you found a way to win and be efficient and move the ball and do different things.’ I think that’s how I feel about it. We didn’t have our A-game. I missed a couple throws. Things weren’t going well.

“But you know scrambling around and doing some different things, and guys making some plays, we found a way to score one more time than they did. That’s all you’ve got to do.”

The Jaguars (11-6) won the wild-card game 10-3, with the lone touchdown coming on Bortles’ 1-yard pass on a fourth-and-goal play, and advanced to play at second-seeded Pittsburgh (13-3) on Sunday.

Jacksonville beat the Steelers 30-9 in Pittsburgh earlier this season. Bortles threw just one pass in the second half as the Jags dominated thanks to five interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, and a season-high 231 yards rushing.

Bortles completed 8 of 14 passes for 95 yards, with an interception.

“Hopefully we can throw less,” Bortles said. “That would be awesome. Leonard goes off again and those guys up front play as well they did last time and we can run the ball up there and not have to throw at all. That was something that happened last time, but you never know. … It could be another one of those games or it could be you go up there and throw it 50 times.”

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