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    Four of the five teams that gave up the fewest points during the regular season are the last four left with a shot at the Super Bowl [url=http://www.49erscheapstore.com/k_waun-williams-jersey-cheap]K’Waun Williams Jersey[/url] , something that had never happened since the NFL-AFL merger nearly a half-century ago.

    And three of the four toughest to gain yards against are still around, too.

    Still think that all a team needs to succeed in the modern game is an elite QB? Go ahead and take a close look at Sunday’s matchups for the conference championship games.

    Sure, Tom Brady (assuming his injured right hand is good to go) and the New England Patriots will be playing for the AFC title, just like they always do, but they’ll be going up against Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Over in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles will send Nick Foles out to face the Minnesota Vikings and Case Keenum, hardly a marquee matchup between quarterbacks, and one set up by injuries to other signal-callers.

    What this quartet of teams does have in common is solid defense, showing once again that while everyone is paying so much attention to one side of the ball, it’s the other that might truly matter the most. The more league rules and officiating tend to favor offenses, the more figuring out ways to slow that down is imperative.

    ”When you have a defense that can shut that type of firepower down,” said Brian Robison, a linebacker on the Vikings defense that ranked No. 1 in yards and points allowed, ”it allows you to win ballgames.”

    Minnesota gave up 15.8 points per game. Jacksonville was No. 2 at 16.8, followed by No. 4 Philadelphia’s 18.4 and No. 5 New England’s 18.5.

    ”There’s teams that have really good defenses that aren’t talked about,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. ”We’re one of them.”

    It’s the first time since the 1970 merger there has been that sort of defensive dominance among the NFL’s final four. The closest was at the end of the 2010 season, when teams that ranked No. 1 (Steelers) [url=http://www.49erscheapstore.com/trent-taylor-jersey-cheap]Trent Taylor Jersey[/url] , No. 2 (Packers), No. 4 (Bears) and No. 6 (Jets) in points allowed reached the conference title games.

    ”The most heralded guys on the field are the quarterbacks. So I would say, nine times out of 10, your detail goes into your offensive planning and things like that,” said Jacksonville’s leading tackler, Telvin Smith, who returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown last weekend. ”Offense sells tickets, and defense wins championships. I’m happy I’m on the defensive side.”

    He is part of a young, talented and speedy D that rose to prominence quickly via a combination of shrewd drafting (linebackers Smith and Myles Jack, defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr., cornerback Jalen Ramsey) and free-agent signings that panned out (defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson).

    Take a look at the rankings in various regular-season categories related to defense, and you can’t miss the Jaguars. That helps explain how they made it this far with Bortles, whose 84.7 rating ranked 22nd among QBs with at least 100 pass attempts and whose 13 interceptions were exceeded by only six players.

    Campbell tied for second in NFL with 14.5 sacks, while Ngakoue added 12 and led the league by forcing six fumbles. Bouye tied for third with six interceptions, while Ramsey [url=http://www.49erscheapstore.com/weston-richburg-jersey-cheap]Weston Richburg Jersey[/url] , Gipson and Church each had four. As a unit, the Jaguars were No. 2 in yards allowed at 286.1, trailing the No. 1 Vikings (275.9), with the Eagles (306.5) at No. 4. The Jaguars were also second in sacks and total takeaways, while they topped the NFL with seven defensive TDs.

    Exceptional defense can carry a team far: In nine of the last 10 seasons, the No. 1 or No. 2 team in points allowed participated in a conference championship game. The exception was 2015, when the Seahawks led the league in that category but lost in the divisional round, and the Bengals ranked second but lost in the wild-card round.

    ”Now it’s down to, `May the best defense win,”’ Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. ”We each get to showcase what we can do.”

    AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minnesota; Kyle Hightower in Foxborough, Massachusetts; Mark Long in Jacksonville, Florida; and Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

    Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Zack Greinke is slowing down, which is not uncommon for a 34-year-old pitcher.

    The only surprise is he is doing it on purpose.

    The majors’ second highest-paid pitcher this season – he’s making $32 million — never hesitates to tinker with his pitch selection, and that’s been evident in recent games. Greinke is throwing a pitch that he’s never flashed before, a slower-than-slow curveball that arrives at the plate with a speed that barely exceeds that of a knuckleball.

    So, when the Miami Marlins take on Greinke (7-5 [url=http://www.49erscheapstore.com/cassius-marsh-jersey-cheap]Cassius Marsh Jersey[/url] , 3.66 ERA) and the Diamondbacks on Thursday in the final contest of a four-game series at Marlins Park, they will be facing one of the majors’ most familiar pitchers yet one they’ve never quite seen before.

    “It’s been working really good this year,” Greinke told reporters after he pitched six shutout innings in a 7-2 Diamondbacks victory Saturday in Pittsburgh. “I don’t know how long it will last for, but it’s been working good. I didn’t throw any harder curves, where I think the whole year, I’ve kind of done both. But my harder one gets hit usually. So, I started throwing only the slow ones.”

    Greinke opposes Marlins right-hander Trevor Richards (2-4, 4.91), who has won two of his last three decisions. Richards won 6-2 at Colorado on Saturday, permitting one run and three hits over six innings, striking out eight and walking two.

    The Diamondbacks could not have received a much better performance Wednesday from left-hander Robbie Ray as they beat Miami 2-1 and improved to 7-2 on their 10-game road trip. Ray, out since April 29 with an oblique injury, allowed two hits over six shutout innings while making 83 pitches.

    Daniel Descalso hit a key pinch-hit homer for the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning to make it 2-0, and reliever Yoshihisa Hirano tied a club record by making his 24th consecutive scoreless relief outing, throwing a scoreless seventh inning.

    Arizona overcame a shaky ninth inning from closer Brad Boxberger, who gave up a solo homer to Starlin Castro before allowing the potential tying run reach second with one out before retiring the final two batters.

    “Other than that, we didn’t get a lot going [url=http://www.49erscheapstore.com/patrick-willis-jersey-cheap]Patrick Willis Jersey[/url] ,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Starlin Castro’s always going to get his hits. Hopefully he can keep that rolling.”

    The Diamondbacks can win the four-game series if they take the Thursday matinee behind Greinke, whose velocity is down the last few seasons — his four-seam fastball maxed out at 90.7 mph in Pittsburgh.

    He once threw consistently in the mid-90s. But when he mixes in an eephus pitch-like curveball that doesn’t even reach 68 mph, it makes his fastball look all that much harder. And he threw 12 of them against the Pirates.

    Still, after Pirates rookie Austin Meadows barely missed homering on Greinke’s final super-slow curveball of the day, the right-hander said, “It might have been running its course. So maybe 12 times was too many.”

    Whatever Greinke is throwing up there, it’s working. He has won four of his last five decisions, and he’s helping keep the streaky Diamondbacks in first place.

    They began the season 24-11, then dropped 15 of 17 to fall to .500 at 26-26 but have since won 20 of 28 and six of seven.

    Greinke has been especially tough on the Marlins during his career, going 6-0 with a 3.53 ERA against them in 11 games (10 starts). He last faced them June 2, limiting them to one run on seven hits in 6 2/3 innings, striking out six and walking one while earning the victory in a 6-2 Diamondbacks win. Castro hits him well, going 9-of-25 with a home run and four doubles.

    The first-place Diamondbacks return home following the contest to begin a three-game weekend series against the NL West rival San Francisco Giants.

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