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Watt, Watson, Olsen named finalists for Walter Payton Man of the Year

The NFL announced the finalists for the 2018 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award at half-time of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday - Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, and Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.

The winner of the award, which recognizes a player for excellence on and off the field, will be announced at NFL Honors on Saturday, Feb. 3.

The three were chosen from a pool of 32 players, one nominated by each NFL team. The winner will receive $250,000 to be donated to the charity of their choice, while the runners-up will be granted $100,000 for their respective charities.

Watt already took home Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year for his humanitarian efforts after helping to raise over $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in the Houston area.

Olsen, a runner-up last year, has had his own charity - Reception for Research: The Greg Olsen Foundation - since 2009, which focuses on cancer research. He and his wife founded a second foundation in 2013 - the HEARTest Yard Fund - to help families of babies affected by congenital heart disease after their son T.J. was born with a rare heart condition, and expanded the organization in 2017.

Watson's charity - One More Foundation - works to fight human trafficking, modern slavery, and other versions of violence against the poor. Watson and his wife regularly travel to the countries affected during the offseason.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 9:44 pm

Gronkowski deemed questionable to return after hit to head

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was taken to the locker room near the end of the first half of Sunday's AFC Championship Game after receiving a hard hit from Jacksonville Jaguars safety Barry Church. The star is questionable to return.

While reaching to haul in a deep pass, Gronkowski was leveled by Church, who appeared to make contact with his helmet. The safety was flagged for unnecessary roughness.

Gronk takes BIG hit from Barry Church, and is now being evaluated for a concussion.pic.twitter.com/AmR1UZQQBt

— LeadingNFL ™ (@LeadingNFL) January 21, 2018

Gronk was taken to the sideline and then the locker room with little more than a minute to play in the first half.

He remained there after halftime and was being evaluated by an independent neurologist. The Patriots listed Gronkowski as questionable to return to the game due to a head injury.

Despite the violent nature of the hit, Church had support from a fellow defensive back in Richard Sherman.

The hit on Gronk is the only way Church could have done his job without just obliterating Gronks knee. If he would have just hit him low most ppl would calm him dirty. So there is nothing he can do to make everyone happy and do his job. Unless you think he should let him catch

— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 21, 2018

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 9:25 pm

Report: Brady dealing with collateral ligament sprain in right thumb

The mysterious hand injury suffered by Tom Brady this week in practice is reportedly a sprained collateral ligament in the New England Patriots quarterback's right thumb, sources told Albert Breer of the MMQB.

Despite the injury, which ESPN's Mike Reiss reports included a cut on his hand requiring at least 10 stitches, Brady will get the start in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 40-year-old threw in practice on Friday with the results indicating he was well enough to play.

Whether or not Brady will wear a glove on his throwing hand to protect the injury remains to be seen as the Patriots face the Jaguars' league-leading pass defense.

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Author: Dane Belbeck
Posted: January 21, 2018, 6:58 pm

Report: Giants GM Gettleman reaffirms desire to keep Eli Manning

New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman made it clear he wants Eli Manning to remain the team's quarterback at a meeting between the two last week, sources told Chris Mortensen of ESPN.

While Gettleman did reaffirm his wishes to keep Manning with the club, he did tell the veteran pivot that the organization will still evaluate quarterbacks in the 2018 draft class.

Both described the meeting as positive, and Manning voiced his desire to remain in New York while also accepting the team will look for a potential successor in the draft.

Gettleman's vision of building up a strong offensive line to help Manning and the running game should certainly appeal to the veteran quarterback, as the Giants ranked 26th in the league in rushing offense last season.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 5:59 pm

Report: Cardinals want 2nd interview with Patriots' Flores for HC job

The Arizona Cardinals are seeking a second interview with New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores for their open head coaching position, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Sources told Schefter that Flores would likely bring on former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell as his offensive coordinator if he gets the job.

Flores has been with the Patriots since 2004, beginning as a scouting assistant. He took over as the linebackers coach last season. The 36-year-old has never worked for another NFL team.

Caldwell was the head coach of the Lions from 2014-17 but was fired at the end of the regular season.

Former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians announced his retirement at the conclusion of the regular season.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 5:46 pm

Report: Browns in serious talks with Todd Haley for OC position

Todd Haley may not be unemployed for very long, as sources told Chris Mortensen of ESPN that the Cleveland Browns are in serious talks with the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator for the same role.

Haley's contract wasn't renewed after the Steelers fell 45-42 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in last weekend's AFC divisional playoffs. The Steelers offense under Haley was second in the league in scoring over the past four seasons.

The Browns retained Hue Jackson despite holding a 1-31 record in his two seasons as head coach. He's also been the leader of the offense during that time, but hiring Haley would indicate he's willing to cede control of that unit for next season.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 5:33 pm

Report: Jack Del Rio leading candidate to become Giants DC

It appears the New York Giants coaching staff under Pat Shumur is beginning to take shape, as sources told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that former Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio is the leading candidate to become the team's defensive coordinator.

The Giants can't make the Shurmur move official until after the Minnesota Vikings are eliminated from the playoffs, but it appears his hire will occur as soon as is allowed. Once he's on board, Del Rio could join the staff shortly thereafter.

Del Rio is still collecting $6 million per year for the next three years from the Raiders, so any money from another job will simply be offset against the salary from Oakland.

The veteran coach was fired after a 6-10 season with the Raiders and finished his tenure there with a 25-23 record. He served as defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos at previous stops in his career.

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Author: Dane Belbeck
Posted: January 21, 2018, 5:23 pm

Vikings' Thielen will play vs. Eagles despite lower-back injury

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen will play in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but it won't be easy.

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport was told Thielen suffered an "extremely painful" lower-back injury in the divisional round against the New Orleans Saints, as he sustained a couple of slight fractures in his back as a result of a hit from Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

He never left last week's game and did not seem to be limited. He finished the game with six receptions for 74 yards on nine targets.

Thielen did not participate in Wednesday's practice and was limited in both Thursday's and Friday's sessions.

A source with direct knowledge of the situation said Thielen's not at risk of further damage.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 5:20 pm

Watch: LeSean McCoy appears to take shot at former coach Chip Kelly

LeSean McCoy takes a shot at Chip Kelly on the NFL Network. Says he has a lot of love for Philly now that the little short coach is with the kids where he belongs.#NFL #FlyEaglesFly #Eagles pic.twitter.com/4GSdweDaUa

— Krusty Sox Sports (@KrustySoxSports) January 21, 2018

There doesn't seem to be much love lost between LeSean McCoy and Chip Kelly, as the Buffalo Bills running back appeared to take a shot at his former coach on Sunday.

McCoy, who appeared on the NFL Network's GameDay program, played under Kelly with the Eagles before being dealt to the Bills. McCoy says he still has a lot of love for Philadelphia "now that the little short coach is with the kids where he belongs."

That is most likely a shot at Kelly who returned to the college ranks as the head coach of UCLA this offseason.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 4:23 pm

Report: Ohio State's Ryan Day considering becoming Titans OC

Just one day after being hired as the Tennessee Titans head coach, Mike Vrabel appears to be on his way to filling the club's offensive coordinator position.

Sources told Adam Schefter of ESPN that Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day is considering leaving his post to join the Titans and run their offense.

One of the reasons the club relieved Mike Mularkey of his duties was the stunted development of quarterback Marcus Mariota this season. Day served as quarterbacks coach for Chip Kelly - Mariota's coach at Oregon - with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

The 24-year-old threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2017 and had the lowest passer rating of his young career by a significant margin. Despite the Titans winning a game in the playoffs, Mariota taking the next step is key to the team's chances of returning to the postseason.

Many questioned the hire of a defensive-minded coach like Vrabel in terms of Mariota's development, but hiring Day would certainly be a step toward easing those concerns.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 3:45 pm

Report: Mike McCoy, Ben McAdoo to be considered for Vikings OC job

With Pat Shurmur reportedly leaving the Minnesota Vikings following the conclusion of the season to take the New York Giants' head coaching job, the club will have to find a new offensive coordinator.

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, two names considered for the role are former head coaches Mike McCoy and Ben McAdoo.

McCoy served as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers from 2013-16 and spent the last season as offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. He was fired midseason in the midst of a six-game losing streak.

McAdoo was fired from his head coaching position with the Giants after 12 games this year, holding a dismal 2-10 record at the time. He was the offensive coordinator for the club before his promotion to head coach prior to the 2016 campaign.

Whoever takes the position will be inheriting the league's 10th-ranked offense from the 2017 season, as the Vikings averaged just under 24 points per game. The main question for the incoming offensive coordinator is at the quarterback position as Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford are all set to hit free agency in 2018.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 3:23 pm

Report: Patriots' Burkhead will play vs. Jaguars despite questionable tag

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead will play in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars despite being listed as questionable with a knee injury, a source told Adam Schefter of ESPN.

Burkhead missed the last two games of the regular season and the divisional round.

Mike Gillislee (knee) will be inactive, added Schefter, so Burkhead, James White, and Dion Lewis will split the carries in the Patriots' backfield.

Burkhead will likely be looking to redeem himself, as the back was apparently the teammate that collided with Tom Brady in practice, injuring the quarterback's throwing hand.

Brady is reportedly still set to start despite the injury.

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 4:46 am

Blueprint for an upset: How the Jaguars can shock the Patriots

This season's AFC Championship Game between the Jaguars and the Patriots isn't quite David versus Goliath; that framing does a disservice to a Jacksonville squad that's as talented - especially on defense - as any team in the league and has more than earned its place.

But the Jaguars are still rightfully the underdogs against a Patriots juggernaut that's appeared in this game for an NFL-record seven years in a row.

Related: Save your jokes - the Jaguars are a legit threat to Patriots' throne

This might not be the best New England team we've seen over that stretch, but they're still, well, the Patriots - supremely coached and a lock to engineer a great game plan, with more than enough X-factors on offense to make any defense's life hell.

The Jaguars need to play a near-perfect game if they're to advance to Super Bowl LII. Here's a blueprint for what they must achieve.

Don't assign 1 defender to Gronkowski all game

Stopping Rob Gronkowski is impossible; you can only hope to limit his impact.

Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone put it best Wednesday when he jokingly discussed his team's approach to countering the tight end.

"Hope they do not throw him the football," Marrone said, according to Ryan Hannable of WEEI.com. "Hope he drops it. There is no secret formula. I'd like to watch a game where someone has been able to do it. He is going to make his plays and you hope those plays don't end up killing you."

But Jacksonville isn't without options - far from it. Safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson and linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack could all be tasked with stopping the pass-catcher. Even star cornerback Jalen Ramsey wants in on the action.

A Ramsey-Gronkowski slugfest would be must-see TV, but it's likely too bold a move for the Jaguars, since it would require a dramatic alteration to their scheme. However, Jacksonville should mix in Ramsey with the other defenders.

By switching the man on Gronkowski, and therefore subtly adjusting the challenge he and Tom Brady face from drive to drive or play to play, the Jaguars could disrupt the timing between the two future Hall of Famers and force the veteran pivot to look elsewhere in critical moments.

Rely even more on Bortles' legs

Blake Bortles will never be mistaken for Michael Vick, but the fourth-year quarterback's scrambling ability was an underrated part of his game until he rushed for more yards (88) than he threw (87) against the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round. This followed a regular season in which he ran for 322 yards and two touchdowns.

Bortles used his legs to good effect against the Pittsburgh Steelers, too. He extended drives with well-timed scrambles, finishing with 35 yards on five carries.

It's a weapon the Jaguars must continue to deploy, though the Patriots are likely expecting it and will play with more discipline than Buffalo or Pittsburgh.

Jacksonville should throw in some designed QB runs, as well some read-option looks, to keep the Patriots guessing. This will also allow Bortles to gain confidence without forcing him into too many throws.

Use run game to control clock, help sustain 4-man rush

Running the ball to control the clock and limit the Patriots' offensive drives is easier said than done. It's a game plan many teams have attempted to execute against New England, and most have failed spectacularly.

But the Jaguars have the elite tools to succeed where others have faltered. Jacksonville owns the No. 1 rushing attack, topping just over 140 yards per game in the regular season. Their success on the ground has continued in the playoffs, as an even heavier dose of Leonard Fournette has pushed that number to over 150 yards per game.

And New England's run defense is vulnerable. The Patriots were 20th in yards allowed per game, but, more importantly, they gave up 4.7 yards per carry (tied for 31st) and allowed opponents to run for a first down 25.1 percent of the time (29th).

The Jaguars' defense is more than capable of standing toe to toe with Brady and Co., but the unit's scheme hinges on getting pressure with a four-man rush. If the offense can't sustain drives, Jacksonville's defense will inevitably either get too tired to be effective with just four rushers, or will be forced to sacrifice coverage players to create more pressure, moving away from what makes the unit so good.

Riding Fournette (and Bortles) is the best way for the Jaguars to both put points on the board and give their defense the best shot at limiting Brady.

Hit on big plays using play action

To beat the Patriots, you need to put up points - and a lot of them.

The Jaguars stunned the NFL world when they not only beat the Steelers, but dropped 45 points on them. That kind of offensive output was rarely seen from the Jaguars this season despite their success.

Usually, the Jaguars' scoring is limited by their methodical, ground-based attack. But the upside of being a run-first team is that it opens up the play-action portion of the playbook. In the wild-card win over the Bills, Jacksonville used play action to perfection on multiple occasions, manipulating the linebackers into crashing down too close to the line of scrimmage and creating holes to exploit downfield.

3 biggest pass plays for the #Jaguars vs BUF... Seems to be a bit of a trend! Use play action to open up the middle of the field!! pic.twitter.com/yAZWetEsfA

— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 8, 2018

By utilizing play action, the Jaguars will give Bortles better looks on the deep shots they'll need to produce to keep up with New England's high-flying offense.

Bortles ranked eighth in passer rating (106.8) when throwing out of play action during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus, so he's proven himself capable of taking advantage of these easier looks.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

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Posted: January 21, 2018, 3:34 am

Report: Brady will start vs. Jaguars despite hand injury

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will start Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars despite suffering a right hand injury in practice this week, sources told ESPN's Dianna Russini.

It remains to be seen how much the injury affects Brady's ability to grip and throw the football.

The 40-year-old reportedly sustained the injury in a collision with running back Rex Burkhead. The veteran pivot apparently required stitches in his hand for a cut that was "gushing blood."

Brady was able to practice Wednesday and Friday (though not Thursday), and was seen wearing a glove on his injured throwing hand.

#tb12 Tom Brady wears a glove on his injured throwing hand as he speaks with backup Brian Hoyer @Patriots practice. #bostonherald pic.twitter.com/FchnDWfFzB

— Matt West (@westipix) January 18, 2018

A source told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network that Brady was "zinging it pretty good" during Friday's session.

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Author: Jack Browne
Posted: January 21, 2018, 12:32 am

Report: Romeo Crennel to take back role as Texans' DC

The Houston Texans will move Romeo Crennel back to the role of defensive coordinator following the departure of Mike Vrabel to the Tennessee Titans, a source told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

Crennel was the Texans' DC from 2014-16. He was moved to assistant head coach to accommodate the promotion of Vrabel last offseason.

The Texans finished first in total defense under the 70-year-old's guidance in 2016. Crennel also helped star defensive end J.J. Watt earn back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2014 and 2015.

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Posted: January 20, 2018, 11:35 pm

Titans hire Mike Vrabel as head coach

The Tennessee Titans have hired Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel as their new head coach, the team announced Saturday.

"Mike has a commanding presence and a deep knowledge for how he will attack this head coaching opportunity," said Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk. "Throughout his football career, he has played for, been mentored by, and coached with successful teams and organizations. He knows what it takes to reach that level of sustained success – he has seen it first-hand. We have a chance to build on the solid foundation that we established over the past couple of years, and I believe Mike is the right person to continue that progress."

Vrabel, 42, takes over a Titans team that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs under the guidance of Mike Mularkey. Mularkey appeared to have saved his job after a wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs, with the Titans saying he would be the coach moving forward.

However, Tennessee opted to part ways with Mularkey after being blown out by the New England Patriots, and has now put its future into the hands of a man with just one season as an NFL coordinator on his resume.

The Texans finished 20th in total defense in 2017 and dead last in points allowed, though Vrabel was forced to contend with injuries to key contributors J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.

The former linebacker spent 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Patriots, and Chiefs, winning three Super Bowls with New England. Vrabel and Titans general manager Jon Robinson have a relationship dating back from their time at the Pats, where Robinson was a front-office executive.

Vrabel was promoted to defensive coordinator in Houston this past offseason after spending the previous three seasons as linebackers coach. Before that, he served as defensive line and linebackers coach at Ohio State.

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Author: Jack Browne
Posted: January 20, 2018, 11:01 pm

Former Redskins GM: 'I don't see special' with Kirk Cousins

As the NFL inches toward the offseason, the Washington Redskins are preparing for the difficult choice of whether to lay the franchise tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins for the third straight season.

Tagging Cousins for each of the past two campaigns has cost the club almost $44 million, and a third year would come at almost $35 million.

With that in mind, former Redskins general manager Scott McCloughan - who made the previous decisions to use the franchise tag on Cousins - joined 104.3 The Fan in Denver this week and weighed in on the upcoming decision.

"He's a good player, is he special? I don't see special," McCloughan said. "He's talented. Talented is good at quarterback in the NFL. He's won games, I know his record overall is not over .500, I know he's not won a playoff game. He's competitive and works his tail off."

While he doesn't think Cousins - who's led Washington to a 24-23-1 record over the past three seasons - is necessarily special, McCloughan does think the former Michigan State star can win with the right roster construction.

"You just need to have some talent around him because you don't want him to be throwing the ball 35-40 times to win a game," McCloughan said. "You want to have a running game, good defense, good (special) teams, and let him do what he does"

Since taking over as the starter in Washington, Cousins is fourth in the league in passing yards and third in completion percentage. Should he become a free agent, he'd likely be high on the list for any team needing an upgrade at quarterback.

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Posted: January 20, 2018, 7:30 pm

Kendricks brothers not speaking ahead of Eagles-Vikings tilt

The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles battle this weekend for a trip to the Super Bowl, but for a pair of brothers, the matchup also puts family bragging rights up for grabs.

Mychal Kendricks, linebacker for the Eagles, and his younger brother Eric, linebacker for the Vikings, are quite close and speak often throughout the season. That has changed this week, however, as the duo haven't spoken in the build-up to the game and don't plan to.

"None of that has gone down this week," Mychal told Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "I don't see it happening before the game or after the game on Saturday night. This is the biggest game of our lives to this date and nothing else matters."

Eric led the Vikings in tackles this season with 113 while Mychal ranked second on the Eagles with 77. Both players are key members of the defensive schemes each team will deploy to shut down their opponent.

So, will Mychal go easy on his brother afterward should the Eagles emerge victorious?

"Dude, I don't know if he'll ever hear the end of this," Kendricks said. "Unless we come back to the same situation, which is obviously possible. It happened once, it can happen again. But, dude, whoever loses, it's going to be messed up."

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Posted: January 20, 2018, 5:13 pm

Report: Brady's hand injury caused by collision with Burkhead in practice

After days of speculation surrounding Tom Brady's mysterious hand injury, we may finally have an idea of who else was involved in the incident.

Despite Brady and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick remaining mum, it was reported Saturday morning that the injury was suffered in a collision during practice with teammate and running back Rex Burkhead, according to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network.

"Brady's hand, it's a concern. He's got a cut on the hand, it happened the other day in practice when he collided with a teammate ... it was Rex Burkhead," Garafolo said.

Related: Belichick characteristically mum on Brady's hand injury

Initial reports Friday indicated Brady suffered the injury after hitting his thumb on a teammate's helmet. The impact reportedly caused a cut that was "gushing blood," and Brady "was in a lot of pain," and that he subsequently received stitches, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

Brady fielded questions during a press conference Friday, but insisted he would not talk about his hand. In regards to questions surrounding whether he believes he will play Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady's resounding answer was "we'll see."

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Posted: January 20, 2018, 4:09 pm

4 dark horses who could decide championship Sunday

Championship Sunday is full of stars on both sides of the ball, from Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to Jalen Ramsey and Harrison Smith.

As usual, these players will likely have the final say in how the conference games play out. However, whether because of certain matchups or scheme advantages, less significant players could still have a huge impact on the results.

Here's one such player for each of the four conference championship teams who could be key to deciding the participants of Super Bowl LII.

Patriots - WR Brandin Cooks

The Patriots acquired Cooks from the New Orleans Saints this offseason, likely hoping he would cement himself as the other main receiving option alongside Gronkowski. And while Cooks' numbers in the regular season were in line with his production over the last few years, he was somewhat of the forgotten man toward the end of the campaign. The wideout failed to break 100 yards in the final six games of the regular season and had just 32 yards in the divisional round.

Well, it's about time the Patriots received some real return for their investment, though it will be tough against the Jacksonville Jaguars' vaunted secondary. Cooks will need to get the better of either Ramsey or A.J. Bouye, who present different but almost equally daunting challenges.

The Patriots could win this game based almost entirely on a dink-and-dunk game plan, with a heavy dose of Gronkowski over the middle of the field. But, New England will have to test the Jaguars' dominant cornerback duo at some point, and Cooks is far and away the Patriots' most physically gifted receiver. A play or two downfield from him could make all the difference for New England.

Jaguars - LB Myles Jack

Jack's rare athleticism was on full display in the Jaguars' divisional-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the linebacker made a spectacular, toe-tapping interception early in the game.

The @Jaguars defense is at it again.@MylesJack INTERCEPTION! #JAXvsPIT #NFLPlayoffs
📺: @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/S8iGZy6D4q

— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2018

And the Jaguars will need every morsel of Jack's speed and agility if they're to stop the Patriots' embarrassment of riches on offense. The former second-rounder could be deployed against the Patriots' staple of pass-catching backs or, more crucially, against Gronkowski.

Jack isn't yet fully developed as a coverage linebacker. Sometimes his athleticism makes up for his inexperience, and sometimes it doesn't. Where Jacksonville ultimately decides to utilize Jack will be crucial.

Lining him up against Gronkowski for more than a handful of snaps would be a bold move, so he'll more than likely be tasked with stopping Dion Lewis and Co. out of the backfield. Regardless, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels love to attack the young players on opposing defenses, and how Jack holds up to whatever challenge he's faced with could be a defining factor.

Eagles - LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai

Vaitai has done an admirable job filling in for longtime left tackle Jason Peters, who tore his ACL and MCL in Week 7. The sky was expected to fall when Peters went down, but the Philadelphia Eagles' offense kept on humming until Carson Wentz was also lost for the season.

While the Eagles' scoring output has declined with Nick Foles under center, little blame can be laid at the feet of the offensive line. The quarterback was sacked just once in the divisional-round win over the Atlanta Falcons.

However, an entirely different beast is coming to town Sunday in the form of the Minnesota Vikings' defensive front seven, which may be the best in all of football. The Vikings like to get pressure with just four rushers and Vaitai is still the most obvious weakness, having given up the second-most sacks (nine) among offensive tackles.

Everson Griffen, who had 13 sacks in the regular season, will be the man lining up opposite the fill-in left tackle. If Vaitai can hold up in 1-on-1 situations and force Minnesota to bring extra bodies to boost the pass-rush, Philadelphia could be headed to its first Super Bowl since 2004.

Vikings - RB Latavius Murray

Murray endured a slow start to his Vikings career, with an ankle issue limiting his reps and allowing him to rush for just 97 yards in his first six games. But the veteran running back quietly regained his form as the season wore on. Murray racked up 745 yards in the Vikings' final 10 games, including a 111-yard, two-touchdown game in Week 17.

Murray, as well as his backfield teammate Jerick McKinnon, face the stiffest of tests versus the Eagles' top-ranked run defense. While Case Keenum and the passing offense have been a revelation, the Vikings cannot afford to become one dimensional and allow Philadelphia's pass-rushers to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback - especially considering its depth along the defensive line.

The Eagles' front likes to play aggressive, and while McKinnon's agility will be a key asset, Murray's strength and ability to run between the tackles could be the perfect foil.

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Posted: January 20, 2018, 3:33 am

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