JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The clock on Tom Brady’s career is ticking and that’s why he was clearly — and audibly — ticked off after the Patriots repeatedly hit the snooze button Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL’s felines of futility.
The Patriots (11-4) flirted with the most ignominious loss of the Bill Belichick era before heading home with an unsightly and unsatisfying 23-16 victory at EverBank Field. New England entered as a 14½-point favorite, but inexplicably the game came down to the final play, a sign-of-the-cross heave into the end zone from the Patriots’ 12 by Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne. The ball was intercepted by Patrick Chung in the end zone.
Next year, when Tim Tebow throws that pass, the Jaguars’ prayer gets answered.
Brady wasn’t filled with holiday spirit after the win. An irate Brady could be heard upbraiding the team in the locker room following the game, with several expletives mixed in for emphasis. Multiple sources who were in the locker room confirmed that the franchise quarterback lit into his team after a lackluster performance.
A much more PG version of TB12 expressed obvious frustration in a postgame news conference of Belichickian brevity.
“We played pretty terrible out there,” said a sullen Brady. “It came down to the wire, and the defense made some plays. But that was a bad 60 minutes of football. We got outcompeted out there, outfought. We were lucky to win.”
There are few accusations more condemning in pro sports than saying your team was outcompeted. But Brady wanted to send a message that more efforts like Sunday’s and the season is going to end with the locker room in hushed tones and regretful tears, like in 2010 after the playoff loss to the Jets. That’s much worse than a Tommy Tirade.
At age 35 and in his 13th season, who knows how many more chances Brady will have to win a fourth Lombardi Trophy? He has had near-misses in 2006, 2007, and last season. The sand in the hourglass is no longer in his favor, so every opportunity must be maximized. After seeing his team go down, 31-3, to the 49ers last Sunday and 13-3 this Sunday, his anger boiled over.
This was like Larry Bird calling his teammates “a bunch of sissies” after Game 3 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Don’t expect any Patriots to clothesline the Dolphins next Sunday, but when a superstar delivers such an explicit message the team can’t ignore it.
“Obviously, he wants us all to pay attention to detail,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, who offered a no comment about Brady’s vocal vituperation of the team. “He’s been in these situations before. He has seen teams that have the capability and have not achieved, and he has seen teams that have the capability and achieved. I think he wants us to have a sense of urgency. We need to have a sense of urgency moving forward.”
Right now, the AFC is practically a flashing neon sign pointing the Patriots toward Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Only a familiar foil, Peyton Manning, in an unfamiliar uniform, that of the Denver Broncos, appears to stand in their way.
Brady’s postgame diatribe was a profound — and profane — plea to his teammates not to squander a great opportunity, to play with more urgency and less lethargy.
There was little of the former and plenty of the latter in the first quarter Sunday. As Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey put it, the Patriots “were playing for a bye. We were playing for respect.”
Mularkey could have said the Patriots were playing as if they were on a bye. Jacksonville compiled 436 yards of offense, its second-highest total of the season, outgaining the league’s No.1-ranked offense by 97 yards.
In the first quarter, Jacksonville (2-13) had a franchise-record 202 yards of offense and a 10-3 lead. It grew to 13-3 early in the second quarter.
Henne, who authored his fourth career 300-yard passing game against the Patriots in six contests (29 of 51 for 348 yards, a touchdown, three interceptions), had completed eight passes before Brady had completed his first, a 32-yard gain down the middle to Michael Hoomanawanui.
Brady (24 of 41 for 267 yards, two touchdowns, two picks) tied the game, 13-13, 18 seconds before halftime, when he flipped a pass to Danny Woodhead in the flat for a 14-yard touchdown. Still, it looked like someone had spiked the Patriots’ eggnog with Ambien.
Brady & Co. finally got some breathing room on the second play of the fourth quarter, when Brady found Wes Welker with a 2-yard touchdown pass to put New England ahead, 23-13. But the Patriots punted on their final two possessions.
“We started slow. We couldn’t do anything offensively. We couldn’t make any plays,” said Brady. “They made plenty of plays. We were lucky to be in it at halftime. Didn’t really do anything in the second half in the run game or the pass game, so just a poor effort overall.”
This should have gone down as a feel-good day for the Patriots, not one filled with closed-door excoriation from the franchise QB.
The Texans lost to the Vikings, 23-6, pulling them within a game of the Patriots in the race for one of the coveted two first-round byes in the AFC. New England holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its 42-14 rout of the Texans.
Also, the Steelers, who loomed as a potentially worrisome first-round playoff opponent for the Patriots, were eliminated from postseason contention with a 13-10 loss to the Bengals.
“We’ve just got to play good. It doesn’t matter, bye, no bye,” said Devin McCourty. “If we’re not playing our best football, I don’t think it will really matter.”
Brady’s expletive-filled message was loud and clear: This isn’t acceptable December football, not if you want to be playing in February.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.