It wasn’t a miracle.
Oh, it’s satisfying in the same exhilarating and delirious kind of way as a miracle, sure. The Patriots’ rally from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the legitimately tough Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-20, in Sunday’s AFC championship belongs right there in the stack of thrillers Tom Brady has authored during his 16 seasons as the Patriots starting quarterback.
This wasn’t his most thrilling high-stakes victory. The rally from 28-3 down to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI stands as his pinnacle achievement, and it probably will forever, presuming he doesn’t have something truly unfathomable in store for the Eagles in two weeks.
Under Brady, the Patriots have three other comeback wins from 10-point (or more) fourth-quarter deficits: The Snow Bowl against the Raiders in January 2002 when all of this began, Super Bowl XLIX against a ferocious Seahawks defense that looks like the prototype for these Jags, and that defeat of the Falcons that crushed their souls.
It also should be noted that the 2014 Patriots trailed 28-14 in an AFC Divisional round matchup with the Ravens before rallying for a 34-28 win. This would be the defining win on most quarterbacks’ careers, but it’s a footnote for Brady. Roger Staubach was known as “Captain Comeback” in his ’70s heyday with the Dallas Cowboys. That man was a frontrunner compared with Brady. I’d love to hear his internal monologue during these moments of truth. It sounds ridiculous, but he really does have the warrior spirit.
Sunday’s victory may have felt like a miracle, what with the Patriots trailing 20-10 and facing a third-and-18 situation with just under 11 minutes left to a Jaguars team that was showing its teeth all day. It may have looked like a miracle. Some of us — and count me among the minority skeptical that they’d pull it off because I never learn — may have even reacted in the moment like it was a miracle.
But it wasn’t.
It was the result of discipline and design, of making every single play they needed to make at the precise second it needed to be made, of making precious little time on the clock seem like more than they could need, of rising to the occasion and hanging in the air long enough to make a breathtaking, important play (Stephon Gilmore, big-game hero, who knew?), of touching down with two feet inbounds and the football secure in the grasp (Danny Amendola, big-game hero, as usual).
You’d think by now we’d realize these apparent miracles are almost entirely of the Patriots’ own making. Of course they’ve been aided from time to time by an opponent making his worst possible decision at the worst possible time. The Seahawks fired offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell this year, two years after they should have. The Falcons offense moved backward when they just had to maintain what they’d been doing and cost themselves potentially clinching points in Super Bowl LI.
But whether it was Malcolm Butler three years ago, Dont’a Hightower last year, or assorted others along the way, the Patriots seize whatever opportunities are presented to them when the stakes are highest. It is an uncanny talent, or habit, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve never seen anything like it in any sport. The Brady-era Patriots are like Larry Bird stealing Isaiah Thomas’s pass and feeding a cutting DJ, over and over and over again.
The Jaguars are getting a lot of day-after grief — some of it from within their own locker room — for becoming conservative in the fourth quarter. Conservative in football jargon is often a synonym for “choking on your own tongue,’’ but that’s not what happened here.
Yes, the Jaguars did put the ball in Leonard Fournette’s hands, and that strategy put them in a lot of second-and-long situations. The alternative was to ask Blake Bortles to make plays. He began the game 15 of 17. He went 8 of 19 the rest of the way. At some point, he turned back into Blake Bortles. Had he been given more leeway, he would have made a fatal mistake, and the howls about Doug Marrone’s competence would never end.
I imagine most Patriots fans and observers you’ve talked to in the last couple of dozen hours have shared a similar mantra: I knew they had it all along. Most of them are even telling the truth, I bet.
I wasn’t among them.
When the Patriots had to punt with 6 minutes left, trailing 20-17, I wondered whether they had squandered their best chance, if not their last chance. The clock wasn’t yet conspiring with the Jaguars, but it was getting close. All the Jaguars needed to do to punch a ticket to Minneapolis was to make a play or two on a day when they’d made so many.
Instead, from Amendola and the redeemed Gilmore to Devin McCourty and the unheralded punter Ryan Allen, every Patriots player who needed to make a play did, with Brady as always at the forefront. The poor Jaguars became one more bystander to history.
It was an amazing victory, a thrilling victory, a come-from-behind victory against a worthy opponent.
What it should not have been was a surprising victory, no matter what probability and time and the deficit tried to tell us. I should have known that by now, but the reminder is always welcome. In the days spent savoring another miracle Patriots postseason victory that really is no miracle at all, there’s no such thing as a post-mortem. It’s a time best spent marveling at their extraordinary collective talent for doing everything it takes to stay alive.