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Patriots TEs could be double trouble for Texans

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Patriots TEs could be double trouble for Texans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots didn't need Rob Gronkowski when they dominated the Houston Texans last month.

Now he's back.

And that gives the Texans, 42-14 losers on Dec. 10, a tougher challenge in Sunday's rematch in a divisional playoff game.

``Obviously, he's a great player,'' Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said Thursday. ``So any time you can throw him in there, it's a good thing.''

It's even better when Gronkowski is out there with their other star tight end, Aaron Hernandez.

But they played together in just five games this season. Hernandez missed six of the first 10 with a sprained right ankle. Then Gronkowski sat out the next five with a broken left forearm before returning for limited action in the regular-season finale, a 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins in which he caught just two passes, one for a 23-yard touchdown.

In their previous two NFL regular seasons, Gronkowski played in all 32 games, Hernandez in 28. They combined for 87 catches in 2010 and 169 in 2011. They were productive when healthy this season with Gronkowski catching 55 passes with 11 touchdowns and Hernandez grabbing 51 with five scores.

``Two's always better than one,'' special teams captain and wide receiver Matthew Slater said.

But to Tom Brady, just having them on the field doesn't mean anything. They need to produce.

``It's a matter of execution more than anything,'' the Patriots quarterback said. ``Just because (Gronkowski) may have the opportunity to be out there on a particular play doesn't matter if we don't execute it well.''

Gronkowski was protecting his left arm when he faced Miami, trying to keep it away from contact. The importance of his health was evident last year when his playing status was listed as questionable for the Super Bowl just 48 hours before the game.

He had suffered a high-ankle sprain two weeks earlier in the Patriots' 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game. That hampered him in the Super Bowl

He had just two catches for 26 yards after a season in which he had 105 receptions, 15 of them in the other two postseason games.

On the last play of the 21-17 loss to the New York Giants, Brady made one desperation heave for the championship, a long pass to the right side of the end zone on the last play. Hernandez and three Giants went up for the ball, Gronkowski lunged for it as it was heading for the ground, and it fell incomplete.

After the season, Gronkowski had arthroscopic surgery on the ankle. Then he broke his forearm while blocking on an extra point in a 59-24 win over the Colts. He still may not be completely healthy, but Gronkowski is ready for whatever he's asked to do.

``I'll give the coaches a great look of what I can do (in practice) so they're prepared for the game and what to call,'' he said. ``So whatever the coaches have in mind, I've just got to perform the best I can.''

The better he and Hernandez do that, the more coverage they're likely to draw. And that would give wide receivers Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch more room to operate.

``The more weapons you have, the more guys have to pay attention to those guys,'' Welker said. ``Obviously, Aaron and Gronk are definitely guys you have to pay attention to.''

The double threat they pose, though, is no guarantee of success. In their five games together, the Patriots are just 3-2.

Gronkowski caught five touchdown passes in dominating wins over the St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts in which Hernandez was sidelined. Hernandez caught two scoring passes in the last month's rout of the Texans.

On Sunday, as a 9 1/2-point underdog, Houston will face Gronkowski for the first time in his pro career.

``He's exceptional,'' Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. ``If the ball is close to him, he's going to catch it. The thing about him, people play him with corners on him. They play him with (line)backers on him. They play him with safeties. His size is just such that it's just hard. You get in there and bang with him, you're going to lose that battle. Obviously, we didn't see him the first time around so it'll be different for us, but a big, big challenge for us.''

Last year, Gronkowski set a single-season record for tight ends with 17 touchdowns. This year, he might have broken that had he not been injured.

On Sunday, after a bye that gave his forearm extra time to heal, he could be as dangerous as ever.

``I'm always eager,'' he said. ``Who wouldn't be? It's football. You want to go out there and give your best.''

Combine his strength with Hernandez's elusiveness - and their excellent hands and route-running to boot - and the Patriots should be better equipped against a Texans team determined to make up for their recent flop on the same field.

``They have good players, too,'' Slater said. ``We're very fortunate to have two young men as talented as they are on our team. We're going to need it come Sunday. All hands on deck.''

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Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

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Twitter/City of Las Vegas

Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

The Washington Capitals official #ALLCAPS hashtag started in 2017 during a Caps-Penguins game after the Pittsburgh Penguins' official Twitter account decided to tweet in all lowercase letters during the game. 

Now, as the Caps look to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final ahead of Game 1 Monday, Vegas has followed suit by changing their iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign to include only lowercase letters, a jab at the Capitals #ALLCAPS.

Additionally, the City's official Twitter account has changed their handle to "the city of las vegas" without any capital letters and the hashtag #nocaps.

It will be interesting to see how the Capitals' official Twitter will respond...

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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