Five takeaways from the Patriots’ comeback in the AFC championship, a 24-20 victory over the Jaguars that sends New England to its eighth Super Bowl in the past 17 seasons…
1. Brady, Brady, Brady
At first, the focus was on the black bandage that wrapped from front to back to cover his stitches. Across New England, people took note there was no glove. That he was being careful about the way he was falling, not wanting to land on his right hand. That the ball was coming out as a spiral, and a crisp one. That he was fist-bumping people with that right hand on the sideline. That he was not only under center, but that when he sneaked the ball, he did so carrying the ball in his right hand.
But by the end, the story of Tom Brady’s 12th AFC championship game wasn’t his injured hand. It was his continued brilliance.
In the more recent portion of this ridiculous run, the pundits have made note that Brady has won without Julian Edelman, and that he’s won without Rob Gronkowski — though the success of the Pats and their quarterback has been contingent on having one of those go-to guys to go to. Then came Sunday, when the Patriots lost Gronkowski to a head injury late in the second quarter, putting a season in which Edelman never played a snap precariously on the line. And all Brady did was lead a comeback from down 10 points with nine minutes to go. Without a legitimate running game.
Against the best pass defense in the NFL.
Brady finished 26 of 38 for 290 yards and two scores, though at this point the numbers of a 60-minute sample just don’t do him justice. After erasing late two-score deficits in each of his last two Super Bowls, Brady got himself to another — his eighth — by doing it again, this time at age 40, with his receiving corps depleted and the adversity stacked against him.
If Brady had retired a decade ago, or had he simply trailed off after the devastating loss of Super Bowl XLII, he would’ve made the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. Since then, though, he’s now won four more conference championships, has won at least a dozen games in eight consecutive seasons, and has a second chance to bookend things (at least temporarily) with three Super Bowl titles in four years.
Not a bad second act.
2. Danny ‘Playoff’ Amendola
At the end of a week where there was so much talk about whether the Patriots might need someone other than Brady to throw the ball in the AFC title game, Danny Amendola delivered, hitting every throw he made, and posting a game-high passer-rating of 118.8.
Oh, and he delivered as a receiver, too. Again.
The Pats receiver lived up to his Gronk-gifted nickname of Danny “Playoff” Amendola once more, snagging seven of his nine targets for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Both of those scores came in the final 8:44 of regulation, including the game-winner that was the epitome of full-body athleticism — from the leap, to the hands, to the leg control that allowed him to get both feet in bounds — and yet those two catches only begin telling the story of Amendola’s contribution to the cause.
He made a catch on fourth and 1 to extend New England’s opening series, which led to a field goal. He then made an even bigger drive-extender in the fourth quarter when he picked up 21 yards on third and 18 while the Patriots were trailing 21-10 with less than 11 minutes to go. Without that, the Pats are punting from deep in their own territory, down two scores, and on life support.
Then, after scoring on that possession, he jumpstarted the Pats’ winning series with a 20-yard punt return that meant they only needed to go 30 yards to take the lead. He deked the Jags by waving his arms as though the punt were “poison” that needed to be avoided as it landed, but proceeded to catch it in the air and scoot up the left sideline.
All told, Amendola now has 26 catches on 33 targets, 274 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion in his last three playoff games. And one completion for 20 yards, too.
3. Jags never recovered from delay call
After the loss, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone lamented a delay-of-game penalty his team took with 2:23 to play in the first half, which on the surface seemed like a reach, given that Jacksonville still managed to take a 10-point lead into the final 10 minutes of regulation.
But the numbers side with Marrone and suggest that the Jags never really recovered from that setback. Leading 14-3 at the time, the penalty negated a 12-yard gain that would’ve put Jacksonville well within field goal range, and likely have given them a chance to hold the ball until halftime.
Instead, the foul cost them five yards, then a sack on the retried third down cost six more. Suddenly the Jags were punting (on the wrong side of the two-minute warning), and giving the Pats a chance to put points on the board. They did, going 85 yards in 67 seconds, and closing to within 14-10 at intermission.
Again, the Jags remained in control of the scoreboard for a while thereafter. They put together a field-goal drive on the first possession of the third quarter, then another on the first drive of the fourth. But here are Jacksonville’s possessions in the second half:
9 plays, 39 yards (FG)
3 plays, -2 yards
11 plays, 66 yards (FG)
3 plays, 9 yards
5 plays, 22 yards
3 plays, -1 yard
6 plays, 32 yards
Discounting the kneeldowns at the end of the first half, that sums to 159 yards of offense on 41 plays, an average of less than 3.9 per snap. Before that, they were picking up almost 7 yards per try (30 plays, 207 yards). Bortles followed a 13-of-15 first half by going 10-of-21 thereafter (and missing 11 of his last 19).
So with that penalty, Jacksonville saw not only a promising drive, but a promising game, and a promising season, come to a halt.
4. A good day for Belichick’s pickups
It was an active offseason for the Patriots leading into this current campaign, with the Pats trading a first-round pick, spending big money on a defensive back, dealing one of their backup quarterbacks late in training camp, and bringing in a former rival late in the year as a reinforcement.
Sunday made all of those decisions look like good ones for Bill Belichick.
Particularly after Gronkowski went out, Brandin Cooks was a legitimate difference-maker on the outside, catching six of eight passes for a game-high 100 yards. He had a 31-yarder in the first half, a tough grab to get things started on the Pats’ first scoring drive of the fourth quarter. Not counted among those totals is the 32-yard gain he created by garnering a pass-interference call on the march that took the Pats to the end zone just before halftime. All told, Cooks’ inconsistency made it something of a quiet 1,000-yard season this year, but the deal with New Orleans paid dividends Sunday.
Philip Dorsett’s addition to the attack was less prolific, but significant nevertheless. He outfought a defender for a 31-yard completion on a fourth-quarter flea flicker, moving the Pats from their 46 to the Jaguars’ 23 when they still trailed 20-10. Jacoby Brissett proved himself a serviceable NFL quarterback, but that single play could make it a worthwhile trade if it proves a big piece of a Patriots’ championship.
There was plenty of criticism of Stephon Gilmore after he was paid handsomely to come down from Buffalo, but the corner broke up two passes amid a solid Sunday performance — none bigger than that which he batted down in solo coverage of a fourth-down throw during the Jags’ final possession. He nearly got a pick earlier, and on a day the Pats had some difficulty covering things over the middle, Gilmore solidified things on the outside.
Then there was James Harrison, who didn’t do much until late in the fourth quarter when he bull-rushed his way into Bortles’ face to help force a key incompletion that set up Amendola’s punt return. He also got a lick in on Bortles when the Jacksonville quarterback fumbled with less than three minutes to go. Those are exactly the sort of burst plays the Patriots had to be hoping for when they picked up Pittsburgh’s castoff and put him into the lineup. And that’s what they got.
5. Gronkowski’s got two weeks
Now the question that’ll linger over New England for the next two weeks is whether Gronkowski can shake off what appears to be a concussion and return to the field in time for the Super Bowl. With Brady saying after the game that he’s expecting to have his stitches out soon and expecting to be unaffected thereafter, it’s Gronkowski whose presence on the injury report will be the one most closely monitored as the big game approaches.
With concussions, every case is different, though it would seem initially encouraging that the tight end was able to walk off the field, up the tunnel, and into the locker room under his own power. He certainly appeared woozy after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Barry Church, and he remained on the turf for a few seconds before Chris Hogan helped up his dazed teammate. His availability is now subject to the NFL’s protocols, and the league will need to clear him if he’s to play in Minneapolis.
But Brady and Co. bought the Pats two weeks to rest him. And if they can build on what they did in the fourth quarter Sunday, then add the big fella to it, a sixth title is the Patriots’ to lose.