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8th Oct 2018
>Recharged and rankled are the New England Patriots
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, who await a visit from the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional playoffs next weekend.The Titans (10-7) are coming off their first playoff win in 14 seasons, a 22-21 thriller at Kansas City in the wild-card round Saturday that left the Chiefs winless at Arrowhead in the postseason since 1994.The Patriots (13-3) are fresh off their eighth consecutive first-round bye as they seek their third title in four years.They’re not only refreshed but fired up after a report suggesting a fractured relationship that could break up the franchise’s three most important pieces in QB Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.Jacksonville (11-6), coming off its first playoff win in a decade, a 10-3 snoozer over Buffalo on Sunday, visits Pittsburgh (13-3) in the other AFC divisional playoff game (1:05 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS).The Steelers are hoping the weekend off helps Antonio Brown return from a torn calf he sustained on Dec. 17 against New England.The NFC’s top seed, Philadelphia (13-3), hosts the defending conference champion Atlanta Falcons (11-6) on Saturday (4:35 p.m. ET on NBC) and the Minnesota Vikings (13-3) host the New Orleans Saints (4:40 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX).The Saints (12-5) edged Carolina 31-26 Sunday night in the wild-card weekend finale.The Falcons throttled the upstart Los Angeles Rams 26-13 Saturday night, sending the league’s best comeback story of 2017 to a premature end.The Patriots have won 11 of 12 after stumbling to a 2-2 start but the buzz around Boston isn’t about their usual dominance but whether that excellence could be coming to an end soon.Brady, Belichick and Kraft released a joint statement this weekend dismissing as “flat-out inaccurate” an ESPN report detailing an array of tension in New England between the triumphant triumvirate responsible for decorating team headquarters with five championship trophies.One of the many things the Patriots are good at is navigating negativity.Last year they overcame the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to win it all and they’re trying to do the same this year without receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, two of their biggest stars.The Titans came back from a 21-3 halftime deficit Saturday at Kansas City and in the process probably saved coach Mike Mularkey’s job .Team owner Amy Adams Strunk on Sunday said her coach isn’t going anywhere after helping change the Titans’ culture and leading them to their first playoff victory in 14 years.The Titans opened as 13-point underdogs to the Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET on CBS).“This is a good
for our football team,” Mularkey said, “but these are the type of games you have to win.”Or go home.The Titans needed an amazing comeback to get their latest win, which tied for the second-largest rally by a road team in the playoffs. Dallas also overcame an 18-point deficit in 1972 in the divisional round to beat San Francisco.Only Detroit’s rally from 20 points down in 1957 to beat the 49ers in the divisional round was bigger than Tennessee’s comeback.The other AFC game is a rematch of Week 5, when the Jaguars beat Pittsburgh 30-9 . Ben Roethlisberger, who threw five interceptions in that game, has led Pittsburgh to 10 wins in 11 games since then with the lone loss coming against the Patriots, 24-21 last month when Brown got hurt and missed most of the showdown in Pittsburgh.In Blake Bortles
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, the Steelers will face a quarterback who ran for more yards (88) than he threw for (87) Sunday and who put together one decent drive all day.“We weren’t sharp, we made some bad plays and did some stupid stuff, but we found a way to win and that’s all that matters,” said Bortles, whose TD pass to
tight end Ben Koyack late in the third quarter was his best throw of the game and a gutsy call on fourth-and-goal from the 1.Although they’re the sixth seed, the Falcons are the only NFC team to make it back to the playoffs this year, and that edge in experience showed Saturday night in the Rams’ first playoff game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1979.One year after advancing to the Super Bowl, the Falcons are “a battle-tested brotherhood,” suggested coach Dan Quinn, who added Sunday “That kind of experience I thought certainly showed up last night.”After showing impressive poise against the Rams, it’s on to Philadelphia, which is the NFC’s top seed for the first time since 2004 but is led by backup quarterback Nick Foles following a season-ending knee injury to MVP hopeful Carson Wentz.So, it’s no surprise the Falcons opened as 2-point favorites on the road.The Vikings are coming off a first-round playoff bye for the first time since 2000 and they’ll face a Saints team that features Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, who combined for 1,852 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns during the regular season but were quiet Sunday, managing just 45 yards on 19 carries but one of them was a 2-yard TD by Kamara.The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 on opening weekend when Sam Bradford and not Case Keenum was under center for Minnesota. The forgotten member of last year's deep tight end class makes his NFL debut Saturday night, and Jake Butt is fired up to show he's just as good as O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku.
Butt was considered as talented as that trio of first-rounders last year but he slipped all the way to the fifth round
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, where Denver grabbed him with the 145th overall pick after he tore his right ACL in Michigan's 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl following the 2016 season.
He was the eighth tight end taken overall, one spot ahead of Iowa's George Kittle, who caught 43 passes for 515 yards and two TDs in San Francisco.
While Butt was missing his rookie season and focusing on getting healthy for 2018, he couldn't help but keep tabs on his fellow rookie tight ends as they piled up 230 catches and 26 touchdowns last season.
"Some were arguing it was the best tight end class ever. Yeah, I kept up with them," Butt said Thursday. "Obviously, a lot of those guys did some great things. Evan Engram stands out. I got to see him live in our stadium, he was making some big plays. O.J. Howard, I've known him since high school, just an absolute beast. David Njoku, Adam Shaheen, they did well.
"And now it's my turn to go out there and compete with them and get the right to earn (the title of) who's the best out of that class," Butt said. "Man, that'll be fun. We'll all be pushing each other."
The Broncos host the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night, and Butt will line up with the starters.
"He'll be with the first group probably for two series and maybe a little bit afterward, but not much more than that," coach Vance Joseph said.
Butt can't wait.
"I'm just ready to go out there and start playing some real football again," said Butt.
He acknowledged feeling like a wide-eyed rookie.
"This will be my first NFL game
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, so what my class went through last season this is what I'm going through right now. So, just to get in that stadium, in front of our fans, with my team and being out there actually participating, it's going to be a fun time," Butt said.
Butt is pain-free and has had a solid training camp so far as veteran Jeff Heuerman sits out with a sore knee. "But it's a whole different beast when you get out there and do it live against another team," Butt said. "So, I want to go out there and continue to be technique sound, work my fundamentals, block well."
The Broncos lost their best blocking tight end when Virgil Green signed with the AFC West-rival Los Angeles Chargers this spring, and Butt knows blocking is what's going to keep him on the field and allow him the chance to catch up to the rest of the 2017 tight ends class.
"We've got some talented receivers on the outside, so if you can have a tight end that they can't key on whether it's a run or a pass, that's going to put some pressure on that defense," Butt said. "And if you're able to execute, that could translate into some big plays for our offense."
Butt and general manager John Elway were hopeful that Butt would only miss half of his rookie season last year, but it quickly became apparent during the one week he was allowed to practice that he'd be better off waiting until 2018.
"The hardest part about last year was not knowing," Butt said. "Being on PUP, you're waiting
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, you're waiting, you're waiting and you don't know if you're going to have to wait longer. But once they shut me down for the year, it just became a focus of let me get as healthy as possible for 2018."
Butt was one of several members of the Broncos' 2017 draft class who played very little (DeMarcus Walker, De'Angelo Henderson) or not at all (Chad Kelly, Carlos Henderson) last season.
There's been a lot of buzz about this year's loaded draft class . If Butt can return to form, though, he'll give a boost to the 2017 class that's taken heat for its many mistakes and immaturity.
"I think our story's still being written," Butt said.
And he could be the lead author.
Notes: Unlike last year, Von Miller will play in the preseason opener. "He's totally healthy, he's had a great camp and we have no reason not to play Von," Joseph said. "Von's in great health and good spirits, so why not?" ... Heuerman, S Su'a Cravens (knee) and OL Menelik Watson (chest) won't play.
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