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Analysis: Big-game experience mattered

FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick was wrong.

It doesn't happen often when it comes to football, but this was one such rare occasion.

Earlier this past week, he tried to tell reporters that his team's unrivaled experience advantage over the Jaguars in big games – seven straight AFC Championships, Super Bowl appearances galore – would be irrelevant versus a young Jacksonville team unaccustomed to sharing the NFL's biggest stages.

Ultimately, that's exactly what separated the two teams. Faced with a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter, the Jaguars – who heretofore had thoroughly dominated New England – collapsed under the pressure. Meanwhile, for their opponents, it was a case of Been-There-Done-That.

The Patriots under Belichick have trailed by double digits a half-dozen times in the postseason and managed to win those games nonetheless. That kind of experience is what gives players the confidence to stay the course when all seems lost.

"Oh, it's everything," declared safety/co-captain Duron Harmon. "It really has to do with the situation we talk about weekly. Coach Belichick does a good job of… learning from previous game we had or other games, so we can know what to do in each situation. Every situation is different, but when you know how to handle each situation and prepare for each situation, it really puts you in a confident state of mind to be able to go out there and play good football."

Human nature might dictate that it's impossible to overcome such odds so late in the game. Not everyone on this current Patriots roster was around for the previous historic comeback – that 25-point turnaround in Super Bowl LI last February – but those who were could draw from that experience and exude a knowing confidence that they then shared with their teammates.

"Chemistry. Family. Believing. We're close. We're a team," remarked cornerback Malcolm Butler. "We're not individuals. We're a team. Just got to keep playing. Keep your eye off the scoreboard. Can't think like that [about losing], even though you do. We're not going to give up on each other. That's what happened tonight."

Which Jaguars would show up – the inept ones who played perhaps the worst playoff game in NFL history at home during Wild Card Weekend, or the confident bunch that played near-perfectly in Pittsburgh a week ago?

That should have been the dominant question on people's minds this past week. Instead, the discussion was entirely about Tom Brady's injured throwing hand.

Turns out, Brady's lacerated right hand wasn't New England's problem. It was Jacksonville.

TB12 didn't seem to have much trouble handling the football, as was evident on the opening drive. But the Steeler-beating Jags took control of the first half, giving their hosts a ton of discomfort on both sides of the ball.

When the Jags had it, they ran the ball effectively with rookie Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon, while QB Blake Bortles found often wide open receivers and made a few tough throws to keep his team's possessions alive.

"They definitely had a game plan for us," acknowledged defensive end Trey Flowers. "We just had to adjust to it. They got us a lot early on with misdirection and different things schematically, but when it came down to it, we made the plays.

"We just had to keep fighting. It was one play at a time. We didn't worry about what happened before, we didn't worry about the score. We just continued to fight, gave our offense the ball, and they did the rest."

It took a while for that to happen, though. Brady and the Patriots O, meantime, had difficulty running against the stout Jacksonville front, which also put heat on Brady and did a good job of pass coverage throughout the first half.

Things looked particularly bleak when Jacksonville safety Barry Church knocked tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the game with a hit to the helmet that concussed New England's top offensive target.

The New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars square off in the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, January 21, 2018.

"Gronk's a big part of our offense. Everybody knows that," running back Dion Lewis conceded, "but other guys stepped up."

In particular, wide receiver Danny Amendola, who, for the second straight week, led the Patriots in receiving and scored the game's final two touchdowns to complete the comeback.

"Amendola's a [expletive] animal – a [expletive] animal!" Lewis emphasized. "I'm cussing, and I don't care. He's a beast, man."

Once Amendola got going, the defense, in turn, ratcheted up the pressure on Bortles and snuffed out the Jacksonville rushing attack, which couldn't run out the clock fast enough. When Bortles tried to seal the game with long throws downfield, cornerback Stephon Gilmore – the high-priced free agent who endured copious criticism in the first part of this season – came up with two of the most important pass breakups of the year for New England. His athletic play to knock the ball away on 4th-and-15 may have been his best as a Patriot.

"He's a silent assassin. That's the best way I can describe him," Harmon said of his defensive backfield mate. "He doesn't say much, but he always has that look in his eyes, like, 'I'm good. I'm going to do my job.' It's great to have somebody like that on your team.

"He had a lot of scrutiny at the beginning of the year, but he just continued to get better. Ignored the noise, put in the extra work. It's no coincidence why he was able to make that play on 4th down."

For most of the game, the Patriots looked tired, battered, old. Jacksonville, on the other hand, looked young, spry, and voracious.

Until it mattered.

That's when the Patriots and their 40-year-old, injured quarterback dipped into their deep well of playoff experience and years of dealing with adversity.

"We believe in our quarterback. They believe in us [on offense]," added Butler.  

"He just lets you know, if we get a stop [on defense], he's going to do what he needs to do on offense to make sure we're in good shape," said Harmon. "That's what he did. He kept telling us, 'Just get stops. Get us the ball back. We're going to be able to move this ball.' And that's what they were able to do."

Give Jacksonville credit. Unlike so many other good teams who've come to Gillette and wilted early, the Jaguars carried their confidence from Pittsburgh with them and played aggressively for most of the day. But clinging to a lead in the end, they knew Belichick's team would have a chance to come back, and the Jags weren't experienced enough to handle the situation. 

The Patriots expected to do it, too, because they've done it so many times before. Their experience mattered. In fact, it made all the difference. As a result, they've given themselves one more chance to keep the Lombardi Trophy in New England.

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