CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — At least we can thank the Patriots for making a fait accompli dramatic. In an NFL final four devoid of star power and brand recognition outside of Patriot Place, the Patriots took it upon themselves to inject some excitement into the AFC Championship game. Despite all the agita, the outcome, along with their Super Bowl berth, was inevitable.
You didn’t really think the Patriots were going to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars at home in the AFC title game, did you? The Patriots let the Jaguars flirt with victory and twirl her around the dance floor. Then they swooped in at the last minute and left with victory on their arm and a knowing smirk. Predictable. It wasn’t going to end any other way on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The 24-20 triumph that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the eighth time since 2001 followed a familiar comeback script — clutch plays at important times from Tom Brady and his receivers, an unheralded defense delivering key stops, and an opponent shrinking when confronted with the magnitude of the moment.
Leave it to the Patriots to turn what should be melodrama into monotony. It was only a matter of time before the Patriots overtook Jacksonville. This was like turning on the television and remembering halfway through an episode of a show that it’s a rerun. Including Sunday, the last four times the Patriots have trailed by double digits in a playoff game, they’ve won.
It’s a credit to the Patriots that they’ve turned the sublime into the routine.
The Jaguars knew what happened, how they blew a game they had led, 14-3, in the first half and, 20-10, in the fourth quarter. They also understood they were largely powerless to stop it, like a pebble washed away by a roaring river.
Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack let out a long sigh when asked after the game to assess what transpired.
“It’s hard to describe it. On one end, you’re like, ‘We could have won the game,’ on the other end, ‘Tom Brady is Tom Brady, and you just got Tom Brady’d again,’ ” said Jack.
Join the club, Jacksonville. The Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons can tell you all about the non-benefits of membership in the Brady Comeback Club.
Overcoming his much-discussed hand injury, Brady finished 26 of 38 for 290 yards with two touchdowns. He had just 152 yards passing after three quarters against the league’s top-rated pass defense. In the final frame, he was 9 for 14 for 138 yards and two scores to Danny Amendola, the last of which was a toe-tapping 4-yard work of art that put the Patriots up, 24-20, with 2 minutes, 48 seconds remaining.
The feisty Jaguars put up a good fight and they’re much better than most people around here gave them credit for being. The same goes for quarterback Blake Bortles, who doesn’t deserve to have his name employed as a pejorative for NFL passers. But Bortles (23 of 36 for 293 yards and a TD) and the Jags simply lacked the pedigree to prevent the Patriots, football’s indomitable dynasty, from advancing to Super Bowl LII in Minnesota on Feb. 4 to face the Philadelphia Eagles and defend the championship they won last season with the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
It was quintessential Patriots that they won the AFC title game with Brady playing with a banged-up and bandaged thumb and his two most trusted targets, Julian Edelman (out for the season with a torn ACL) and Rob Gronkowski (knocked out of this game with a head injury in the first half), sidelined.
It was so Patriots that on the decisive defensive possession for the Patriots, it was cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the goat of the first four games of the season, who made an outstanding play to knock away a Bortles pass to Dede Westbrook on fourth and 15 from the New England 43 with 1:47 to go.
As long as the Patriots have the canonized coupling of Brady and Bill Belichick, like the celebratory confetti, it all falls into place.
It wasn’t quite Curt Schilling in the 2004 American League Championship Series with his famed bloody sock, but Brady persevered through an injury on his hand near his thumb that required stitches and had him doubting his availability and effectiveness in this game after it happened on Wednesday in practice during a handoff.
Any concern about Brady’s hand and his effectiveness went out the window when he lofted a beautiful fourth-down pass to Amendola to extend the Patriots’ first drive, dropping the ball in with perfect precision to set up first and goal at the Jacksonville 10. However, the Patriots settled for a field goal.
That would be the only lead the Patriots would have until Amendola’s game-winner in the fourth.
The Patriots were playing in their record seventh straight AFC title game. Someone forgot to tell the Jaguars that they were supposed to be a feckless foil that the favored Patriots pulverized on their way to Minneapolis.
It was thumbs down for the Patriots in the first half.
Jacksonville took the lead on its second drive on the second play of the second quarter. Bortles hit Marcedes Lewis with a 4-yard touchdown pass. The crowd went from quiet to visibly concerned when the Jaguars marched 77 yards in 10 plays on their next drive. Leonard Fournette plowed in from 4 yards to put the Jaguars up, 14-3, with 7:06 left in the half.
It didn’t bode well for the Jags that the Patriots were down only 14-10 at the half, despite being thoroughly outplayed. Jacksonville outgained the Patriots, 209 yards to 137, held New England (0-5) without a third-down conversion, and won the time of possession battle (18:22 to 11:38). But Jacksonville suffered from the mandatory Foxborough Football Brain Freeze. It negated a third-down conversion with an inexcusable delay of game penalty coming out of a Patriots timeout with 2:23 to go, setting up a James White 1-yard TD run with 55 seconds left in the half.
The Patriots ran nine total offensive plays in the third quarter. They were only 1 for 8 on third down at that point. They had run 36 plays total.
Jacksonville extended its lead to 20-10 on a field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter.
New England had the Jaguars right where it wanted them.
The Patriots would run 25 plays in the fourth quarter and compile 171 of their 344 yards of offense. Meanwhile, the Jaguars sputtered, going 0 for 5 on third down.
The ending was ineluctable.
“I think we always have confidence. We really do,” said Brady. “I mean, whether it’s the beginning of the game or toward the end it’s never really over till it’s over with this team. You know, I was proud of the way we fought. It’s a mentally tough team, and we needed a lot of mental toughness today, and we found a way to dig deep and get it done, even on offense without one of our very best players. It was a great win.”
Brady was wrong about one thing. Sometimes it is over before it’s over. This game was.
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