The Patriots were on the ropes for the majority of the afternoon and trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady wasn’t at his best and he didn’t have Rob Gronkowski after the tight end was knocked from the game with an apparent concussion.
None of it mattered.
As has he has done time and time again in the postseason, Brady rallied for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and the Patriots held on for a heart-stopping 24-20 victory over the upset-minded Jacksonville Jaguars to capture their 10th AFC Championship.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots latest improbable postseason victory.
-All eyes were trained on the right hand of Brady, as the quarterback donned gloves on both hands during the week at practice. Brady alleviated most of those fears before the game even started when he entered the field for pregame warmups with just black tape on his injured hand and threw the ball without any noticeable limitations. He then opened the game with the shotgun and completed a 5-yard toss to Dion Lewis. Later on the opening series he took a snap from under center and handed off to a streaking Rex Burkhead for 5 yards. Brady kept that opening possession alive with a clutch 20-yard throw to Danny Amendola to convert on fourth-and-one from the Jags 30. The drive stalled from there, however, and Stephen Gostkowski was forced to boot a 31-yard field goal.
-Credit the Patriots coaches for some excellent game planning on that drive as offensive coordinator Josh McDanielswas able to create mismatches with Brandin Cooks and Amendola going against zones that had linebacker Telvin Smith in coverage. Cooks grabbed a 31-yarder down the seam after Smith failed to re-route him at the line, and Smith was again victimized on Amendola’s fourth-down grab down the left sideline.
-Prior to the game Brady’s weekly interview with Westwood One ran and the quarterback shed some light on the week’s events. “It was just a very fluke injury. There was a collision in practice. My hand suffered a bit of an injury, but hopefully I can go out there and still be really effective. I think all injuries are to a degree, but I’m going to try to minimize that as best as possible. I prefer not to be too numb. I’d love to be able to feel the ball as best as possible. This is a game of inches, especially with the No. 1 rated pass defense in the league. I don’t think you can be off by much. The more I can play without any numbing cream or medication, the better I’ll feel.”
-It took a while for Brady to get in gear but overall it didn’t seem the thumb gave him much trouble. There were times when the offense was out of synch and when Gronkowski left the game things looked bleak. But that’s when Brady turned it up a notch, thanks to some great work from Brandin Cooks and Amendola. Cooks finished with six catches for 100 yards and he was responsible for another 68 yards after drawing a pair of pass interference penalties. Amendola was even better, especially when it mattered most. He finished with seven catches for 84 yards and a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns that made the difference. He also converted a huge third-and-18 in the final quarter when the Patriots trailed 20-10. Amendola has been the Patriots best player in the playoffs.
-If Amendola is not the top postseason performer, a strong case could be made for Stephon Gilmore. The free agent corner turned in his second outstanding effort of the postseason, including some memorable plays at key moments. He found himself one-on-one with Dede Westbrook on a go route down the left sideline in the fourth quarter and dominated the matchup. It came at a time the Jaguars were well into conservative mode running the ball deep in their own end and Blake Bortles took a shot. It was a perfect time to throw deep given the circumstances but Gilmore was up to the task. He made an even bigger play to close it out down the stretch when he knocked away a pass intended for Westbrook on fourth-and-15from the Patriots 43 to snuff out the Jags final drive.
-One of the more anticipated matchups of the game heading in was how the Jaguars would deal with Gronkowski. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was not shy about his ability when he declared during the week that Gronkowski “hasn’t played a corner like me before” but Jacksonville opted to go in a different direction. Jags defensive coordinator Todd Walsh sang a different tune during the week. “In a basketball game, I think we would [have Ramsey cover Gronkowski]. But Jalen is a corner, and we’re going to run our system. I think the last thing you can do is to go into a game like this and you try and reinvent the wheel. We got to where we are at as a team, not just a defense, but as a team doing what we do. We run the football, we create takeaways and we play sound defense and special teams. We’re not going to change that. Jalen is a good corner, and he plays against wide receivers.” Turns out that was much ado about nothing as Ramsey generally stuck to his outside role at corner while Gronkowski was a non-factor after getting knocked from the game in the second quarter.
-The Patriots inactive list had no real surprises. The most noteworthy absence was LaAdrian Waddle, who left last week’s divisional round win over Tennessee with a knee injury. He was limited during the week in practice and was unable to go, leaving Cam Fleming as the starter at right tackle. Despite practicing for the third straight week, defensive tackle Alan Branch was inactive once again. That left the Patriots front with Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Ricky Jean Francois as the chief run-stuffers going against Leonard Fournette.
-There was a key development at the end of the first half that gave the Patriots some momentum heading into the locker room. The Jags had the ball with 2:23 left facing a third-and-eight, and Bortles appeared to convert with a 12-yard out to Marcedes Lewis. However, the play was negated by a delay of game call that was borderline at best as the Jags appeared to snap the ball as the clock went to zero. The Patriots then got off the field with a sack on third-and-13 and Jacksonville was forced to punt. But instead of allowing the clock to drain to the two-minute warning, Brad Nortman kicked to Danny Amendola and the Patriots took over with 2:03 left. That gave the Patriots some extra time to negotiate their drive, and the Patriots caught a couple more breaks along the way. Safety Barry Church made a big hit to knock the ball away from Gronkowski on a seam route but was flagged for unnecessary roughness, giving the Patriots 15 yards instead of facing a third-and-10. On the next snap, A.J. Bouye and Cooks were running stride for stride down the left sideline but officials saw otherwise, nailing the corner with a 32-yard pass interference penalty to move the ball to the 13. Two plays later James White plunged in from the 1 to cut the lead to 14-10. It was White’s fourth rushing touchdown in the last five postseason games.
-It wasn’t all good for the Patriots on that exchange, though, because Gronkowski was knocked from the game with a head injury. He was announced as questionable to return initially but later it was updated to out. Gronkowski was clearly out of it as he made his way to the sideline and his status will obviously be a huge storyline heading into the Super Bowl. He finished with just one catch for 21 yards.
-Jacksonville offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett enjoyed a tremendous first half, mixing runs and passes out of different formations and keeping the Patriots off balance. The Jags attacked the Patriots run-heavy defensive front with some play-action looks that found several open receivers. Guy, Brown and Jean Francois were on the field together on early downs and rather than force feed the ball to Fournette, Hackett had Bortles use play action to spread the ball effectively on short throws, like a 24-yard catch-and-run by Corey Grant that set up the first touchdown. Grant beat Patrick Chung on that play, and Chung was victimized again on the next play when Bortles hit Lewis for an easy 4-yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Jags, Hackett went conservative in the second half and kept it on the ground to Fournette on most early downs and forced Bortles to convert on third-and-long. Jacksonville managed just a pair of field goals after the break.
-One huge play that appeared to be disastrous for the Patriots in the fourth quarter actually turned out to be a huge break. The Patriots ran a trick play with Brady flipping one to Amendola behind the line, and the wideout then chucked it back to Lewis. The running back then darted upfield for a 20-yard pickup, but Myles Jack ran him down and stripped the ball. Jack recovered the loose ball and immediately jumped to his feet and took off down the sideline without a Patriots in sight. Officials immediately ruled it a fumble and called it Jacksonville ball, but for some reason the whistle blew and negated the potential runback, which could have been a clinching touchdown that would have made it 27-10. Instead the Jags simply took over at their 33 and were soon forced to punt.