Eagles

Patriots reach 7th straight AFC title game

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Patriots reach 7th straight AFC title game

BOX SCORE

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady passed for three touchdowns and 337 yards, and the New England Patriots cruised past the Tennessee Titans 35-14 on Saturday night to advance to their seventh consecutive AFC championship game.

New England (14-3) will host the winner of Sunday's divisional matchup between Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.

It was Brady's 10th career postseason game with at least three TD tosses, moving him past Joe Montana for the most in NFL history. James White caught a touchdown pass and ran for another, and Danny Amendola had 11 catches for 112 yards.

The Titans (10-8) took an early 7-0 lead, but New England scored 35 straight points to take control.

Marcus Mariota completed 22 of 37 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but was under duress for most of the second half. He was sacked eight times, a Patriots playoff record. New England also held Derrick Henry to just 28 yards rushing on 12 carries.

New England's victory came on the heels of a week filled with drama following reports of turmoil involving Brady, coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft.

None of that showed on the field Saturday.

"It definitely sounds crazy. But you have to keep ignoring the noise on the outside, just keep working every time you walk into the building and just keep grinding," tight end Rob Gronkowski said of how his team handled the media firestorm this week.

The Titans came back from an 18-point deficit in the second half to beat the Chiefs 22-21 in the wild-card round last week - the largest comeback on the road in the Super Bowl era. But the Patriots didn't give them a chance for an encore.

Leading 14-7, the Patriots stretched their lead to 14 just before halftime thanks to a trio of careless penalties on the Titans.

Tennessee initially forced a three-and-out, but gave up a first down via a fourth-and-5 neutral zone infraction on Brynden Trawick before New England's punt attempt.

Armed with a new set of downs, Brady went to work moving the Patriots down the field with a steady diet of short passes. The Titans helped along the way with illegal contact and unnecessary roughness penalties. It eventually culminated in a 4-yard TD pass from Brady to Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone that made it 21-7.

Brady threw a short shovel pass to White, who ran it in from the 5-yard line to make it 7-7 early in the second quarter.

The Patriots appeared to have a touchdown three plays earlier, when Dion Lewis caught a pass from Brady and was tackled by Wesley Woodyard at the 19. Lewis landed on top of the defender, then got up and continued to the end zone.

The officials initially ruled that he had never been down and called it a touchdown. But replays showed Lewis' butt hit the ground at the 19.

Corey Davis made a one-handed catch on a 15-yard pass from Mariota in the corner of the end zone to give the Titans a 7-0 lead. Mariota had a pair of 11-yard runs to help set up the score.

Davis added an 11-yard TD reception with 1:55 left in the game - and the Titans' season.

Injuries
Titans: Right tackle Jack Conklin walked off on his own power after injuring a knee in the first quarter. He did not return. ... Tight end Jonnu Smith was carted off in the third quarter with a right leg injury.

Patriots: Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle left the with a knee injury early in the third quarter. ... Cornerback Jonathan Jones was helped off the field late in the fourth quarter.

Unforced errors
The Titans had 85 penalties in the regular season - the second-fewest in the NFL.

They were flagged 10 times for 62 yards on Saturday, just the second time they had 10 or more this season.

Moving on up
Gronkowski finished with six catches for 81 yards and touchdown. It was his 10th career postseason TD. He's tied with five others for third all-time. But it's the most for a tight end.

Gronk also moved into second all-time for a tight end with 835 postseason receiving yards. He passed Keith Jackson, and only Dallas Clark is ahead of him.

Up Next
The Patriots will play the winner of Sunday's matchup between the Jaguars and Steelers in the AFC championship game.

Brandon Graham stays ready in boxing ring, takes 'important step' for Eagles' 2018 opener

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Brandon Graham stays ready in boxing ring, takes 'important step' for Eagles' 2018 opener

In February, Brandon Graham won a ring. In the six months since he’s gotten in one.

Graham said Monday he’s been doing some sparring as he rehabs from postseason ankle surgery.

Graham, who had a career-high 9½ sacks last year, returned to practice Monday after spending the last three weeks on the Eagles' physically unable to play reserve list (see story).

“Boxing is real good, especially with using my hands,” he said. “I always do that during the offseason. Always focus on my hands, because as a D-lineman that’s our goal, you’ve got to use your hands in everything.

“So while I’ve been hurt I’ve just been trying to work on my coordination and make sure everything stays tight.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Graham will be limited for a while here as he works off the rust.

"There are steps he's got to take along the way,” Schwartz said. “This is an important step getting back on to practice with his teammates. Probably be limited to just some individual stuff and we'll sort of work him along. But it is great to have him back.”

Graham won’t play against the Browns Thursday night and almost certainly won’t play against the Jets in the preseason finale a week later.

All he’s got on his mind is the Falcons on Sept. 6.

“All I can say is when I do start hitting people, I’m going to be so sore, but then you’ve got to work through that soreness like we always do and eventually that starts to become your armor and you build on that,” he said.

“I’m excited. Just excited to be back out there with the boys. It’s been hard standing back because you don’t want to feel behind. I don’t feel like I’m behind but they got a lot more reps than I got, so I’m just trying to catch up.

“Everybody knows when it’s time to go it’s going to be time to go. I’m just excited. We’re all excited because it’s the first step.”

Graham, who had the legendary strip-sack of Tom Brady in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl, said his ankle is fine, it’s just a matter of conditioning at this point.

Week 1?

“I’m not going to make any promises, but I’m working my butt off every day,” he said. “Putting money in the bank every day.”

Graham has missed only one game since opening day of 2012, and that was the meaningless season-ender last year against the Cowboys.

Only four defensive ends — Jerry Hughes, Cameron Jordan, Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh — have played more games (96, obviously) over the last five seasons.

“I’m really just focused on Week 1 right now and focus on today and how everything goes,” said Graham, now 30.

“I feel like I can get myself ready for Week 1, for sure, because I’m already doing two-a-days and sometimes two-a-days. It’s on me to make sure I continue to get my shape up and that’s just running and doing drills and pushing and pulling on people.

“I think as I continue to feel better, I’m going to continue to go harder. I’m just excited because now I can start counting down the days. I’ve got 17 days to get right.”

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Tackling new helmet rule a challenge for Jim Schwartz, Eagles

Tackling new helmet rule a challenge for Jim Schwartz, Eagles

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is concerned enough about the NFL's new rule banning tacklers from lowering their head to initiate contact that he held a defensive meeting Monday specifically so his guys could study film of exactly how the league is calling the new rule.

Through two preseason weekends, the Eagles have been cited a league-high five times for personal fouls for lowering the head.

“The instructions we’ve given guys is, try not to lower your head and try to take your head out of it, and I think our guys are trying to do that,” Schwartz said.

“I can confidently say we don’t have any guys that are trying to play outside the bounds. We don’t have any guys that are head hunting, that are being selfish. They’re trying to play within the rules.

“I think you can see Nigel [Bradham’s] play, he’s trying to get his head out. I think even Rodney [McLeod’s] play, he’s trying to get his head across and get it out. The problem is they’re dealing with world-class athletes who are moving targets. A little bit easier said than done. 

“And those fouls have hurt us in those first couple preseason games and we’ve got to get to a point where they don’t hurt us in the regular season.”

Cornerback Sidney Jones was called for a lowering-the-head penalty on Steelers receiver Damoun Patterson in the preseason opener, and tight end Richard Rodgers was also cited in the opener for an illegal hit on Justin Thomas on a punt return.

Last Thursday night, McLeod was called for a hit on running back James White, Bradham was cited for a hit on receiver Julian Edelman and safety Jeremy Reaves was penalized for a hit on running back Mike Gillislee.

“It’s going to be very important work over the next couple weeks, not just learning from our own mistakes but learning from other teams,” Schwartz said.

“There’s some other good feedback. We get clips from the league that show not just penalties that were called but penalties that should have been called. So there is a learning process.”

Eagles veteran defensive end Brandon Graham said it’s going to be tough to eliminate these penalties simply because the game moves so fast, and even if your intention is to use perfect form tackling, it doesn’t always end up that way.

“It’s tough because sometimes the runner’s ducking his head just as much as you’re ducking,” he said. “But they just don’t want to see the crown of your head hitting his crown or hitting his facemask.

“Just really try to keep your eyes up. You’re going to get ran over sometimes. Hey, you’re going to get ran over. But some people do like to use the crown of their head and it’s just to protect them because you don’t want to be paralyzed from hitting someone the wrong way. 

"So I try to keep my face up and hit with my facemask and this will force people to start doing stuff like that.”

One challenge Schwartz noted is getting his guys to play hard, fast and aggressive without thinking about how they’re tackling.

“You want to play fast,” he said. “You want to play confidently on the field. But any time there’s something new, there is going to be an adjustment. 

“It’s a difficult thing. We're trying our best to work through it, but it does add a layer of difficulty to what we're trying to do.”

According to penalty stats on NFLgsis, an official league statistical web site, there have been 48 lowering-the-head penalties called in 32 preseason games or 1½ per game.

Eight of the 32 teams haven’t been cited at all. The Eagles and Titans have been called a league-high five times each.

“It’s real sensitive right now, but as professionals, we’re going to adjust,” Graham said.

“They want to make it an emphasis in preseason, and I’m happy it didn’t cost us a real game. We’ve just got to continue to keep our head out of things and I think we’ll make that adjustment."

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