Tom Brady shook off his right-hand injury and overcame an impressive Jacksonville defense to lead the Patriots to a comeback 24-20 victory Sunday evening at a raucous Gillette Stadium to push the defending champions into Super Bowl LII.
New England scored first and last, the final points coming on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Danny "Playoff" Amendola, his second of the fourth quarter, with less than three minutes to play.
In between it was a real struggle against a Jacksonville defense that came to play and Blake Bortles' impressive work that helped the upstart visitors to a 14-3 lead in the second quarter and a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
Making matters more difficult, New England lost Rob Gronkowski to a head injury in the second quarter and he did not return.
Along the way there were huge plays from both teams, players littering the rosters on both sides of the ball trying to stamp their names in the history books in an AFC Championship Game that continued the entertainment factor that the NFL has brought to fans over the last two weeks of postseason action. Both teams pulled out flea flickers. New England had a double-pass. There were turnovers and big hits.
"I couldn't be prouder of the way our guys played, fought and in the end executed," Bill Belichick said. "It comes down to a handful of plays."
Those key plays went the way of Patriots team that's now heading to Minneapolis for one more game.
"We got to write our own story tonight. It took every player and coach. Happy we won, baby! Going to Minnesota," Brady told CBS just after helping secure his eighth trip to the biggest game in sports.
Brady downplayed the injury, "I've had a lot worse."
And rightly praised his team's second-half that had it overcome a day in which the offense went just three of 12 on third down conversions.
"That was an amazing second half. Awesome," Brady said during the on-field celebration.
"It's never really over until it's over with this team," he added later.
Before moving on to the two-week lead up to Super Bowl LII and the Patriots attempt to defend their title and win a third ring in four years, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from another epic New England postseason victory.
Danny Amendola – A week ago Gronkowski dubbed Amendola with his "Playoff' nickname after the veteran receiver had 11 catches for 112 yards to beat the Titans. Having established himself as a truly clutch contributor in recent postseason runs, but Amendola may have had his biggest performance against the Jaguars. He finished with seven catches for 84 yards, including the two fourth-quarter touchdowns. He also had a key 21-yard conversion on third-and-18 on the drive to his first touchdown. Oh, he notched a 20-yard punt return to set up the Patriots at the Jacksonville 30 to kickstart the game-winning drive. Amendola is so good he may need a better nickname than just "Playoff."
Brandin Cooks – Even considering a tough drop on a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, Cooks had a huge performance to help the Patriots to victory. Overall Cooks had six catches for exactly 100 yards. He was consistently open beyond the sticks for comebacks. He drew a 32-yard pass interference call to set up New England's first touchdown late in the second quarter. He then drew a 36-yard pass interference again in the fourth quarter, though the drive ended in a punt. Cooks came up big in a big game late in a season when his contributions, if not numbers, have been questioned by some.
Stephon Gilmore – New England's big offseason free agent addition has clearly become the team's top cornerback late in his first season in Foxborough. Gilmore was by far the best back-end defender the Patriots had on the day. Though he did allow one 29-yard pass down the left side late as the Jaguars tried for their own comeback, Gilmore closed the door on Jacksonville with a pretty pass defense down the deep right sideline on Bortles final throw of the evening toward Dede Westbrook. Gilmore has come up huge in the first two weeks of his first career postseason action.
Tom Brady – The 40-year-old G.O.A.T. has such an impressive resume that Sunday's latest playoff comeback win almost feels like nothing special. But Brady completed 26 of 38 throws for 290 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 108.4 passer rating. Whatever he dealt with in terms of his hand injury, he more than got the job done against the NFL's No. 1 pass defense and No. 2 pass rush.
Dion Lewis –* *New England's playmaking back had become one of the centerpieces of the offense over the last couple months of the season. But Sunday afternoon against Jacksonville Lewis was very much held in check by the speedy front of the Jaguars. Lewis ran the ball nine times for 34 yards (3.8 avg.) which actually included an 18-yard run. Lewis only had 32 yards on seven catches, including a 20-yard reception. The worst play of the evening came on the double-pass, in which Lewis lost the ball at the end of the 20-yard gain and was fortunate that Myles Jack's recovery was blown dead by the officials on a would-be touchdown return.
Patrick Chung – A few days after Bill Belichick called Chung one of the best players in the league, the veteran safety struggled mightily early on against Jacksonville. Chung appeared to be the guy who was late to his assignment on consecutive plays in the first quarter in which Bortles found Corey Grant for 24-yards down the right sideline and then tight end Marcedes Lewis in the end zone for the 4-yard touchdown. Chung also had some issues in his tackling in the run game, missing Leonard Fournette in the backfield on one play and getting running over by the big back on another. Not a great day for one of New England's more reliable veteran defenders.
Malcolm Butler – While Gilmore was enjoying a stellar day, New England's other former Pro Bowl cornerback struggled for the second straight week of postseason action. Butler was on the wrong end of a nice Butler-to-Marqise Lee throw down the right sideline for 26 yards in the second quarter. Much like he did at points during the teams' preseason joint-practice work, Butler seemed to be chasing Lee a points in this battle and overall had a tough day in coverage.
Third down offense –As Brady himself pointed out in his postgame presser, the third down offense was a struggle against the impressive Jaguars defense. New England went just three of 12 (25-percent) against the NFL's No. 4 third-down defense. Amendola's third-and-long conversion was huge on the first of the two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. But overall it was a tough day for Brady and Co. on what's known as the "money" down in the NFL.
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