BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF
FOXBOROUGH — If you’ve been paying attention all these years, you knew there was never any doubt.
These are the Patriots, and there’s always a great comeback on deck. It doesn’t matter if the Patriots trail, 28-3, in the Super Bowl, or look beaten when the other team is ready to score a certain game-winning touchdown from 1 yard out. It certainly doesn’t matter if the Patriots are trailing the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-10, with less than nine minutes to play in an AFC Championship game.
Oh, and of course it doesn’t matter if Tom Brady is playing just four days after getting 10 stitches in his throwing hand or if Rob Gronkowski is KO’d by a hit to the helmet in the first half of the conference championship.
No. None of that ever matters. The Patriots win. They always win. And Sunday they earned their 10th trip to the Super Bowl, and the eighth trip in the Bill Belichick/Brady era, with a thoroughly entertaining 24-20 victory over the upstart Jaguars.
No Tomato Cans this time. The worthy Jags played very well for a good portion of this game and their naive fans probably thought they were going to shock the world. We know better. We’ve been watching this for 17 years and there’s always another Brady comeback, another Tuck Rule, replay reversal, or dumb decision by the opposition. When the clock hits 0:00 and the confetti flies, the ever-better-and-smarter-than-you Patriots hoist the championship trophy over their heads while the stunned visitors spit out pieces of their broken luck.
The Patriots will play the Eagles in two weeks in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. The Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls and copped five Lombardi trophies during the Belichick-Brady era. New England is the first team to appear in 10 Super Bowls and the Patriots can tie Pittsburgh as the winningest Super Bowl franchise with a victory in Minnesota.
There was nothing easy about Sunday afternoon’s rock fight against the Jaguars. Much-mocked Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles played the game of his life and the Jaguars’ vaunted defense stuffed the Patriots for three-plus quarters. But Jacksonville started to do stupid things near the end of the first half and spent the final two periods throwing sandbags at Brady in hopes of stalling the inevitable wave that was about to crash over the heads of the visitors. Brady connected with Danny Amendola for a pair of touchdown passes in the final 8:44 and it unofficially ended when defensive back Stephon Gilmore batted away a Bortles desperation fourth-and-15 pass with 1:53 left.
Celebrating the 24th anniversary of the day he bought the then-fledgling franchise, Bob Kraft held the Lamar Hunt Trophy and asked the delirious crowd, “How great are these coaches and players? I have never heard Gillette Stadium as loud as it was tonight. This is what I dreamt about as a fan in the stands, just like all of you, and now we have to go to Minnesota and finish the job!’’
Kraft yielded the stage to a smiling Belichick (no hoodie on a 48-degree day), who said, “We’ve got a lot of guys that really fight and never give up.’’
Brady, who was the center of attention late in the week after a mysterious injury suffered during practice Wednesday, held the Hunt Trophy aloft with his bandaged hand and acknowledged the mystery of the last few days when he failed to confirm he’d be able to play with the injury.
“I said, ‘We’ll see,’ . . . so how’d it go?’’ Brady asked the crowd. “Coach Belichick doesn’t like us talking about injuries. It was a pretty good cut. I dealt with it the best I could . . . I’ve had a couple of crazy injuries over the years, but this was pretty crazy. This was a little injury at the end of the day.’’
“Tom’s a tough guy, but we’re not talking about open-heart surgery,’’ sniffed Belichick.
Video: Bill Belichick on Tom Brady’s hand injury: “We’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
The game was a struggle. The Patriots did not convert a third-down play in the first half and allowed Jacksonville to possess the ball two-thirds of the time. Four Jacksonville penalties in the final four minutes of the first half allowed the Patriots to close the gap to 14-10 at intermission. The key play of the game came when Brady converted a third-and-18 play (21 yards to Amendola) from his 25 while trailing, 20-10, with 11 minutes remaining.
Brady completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Amendola caught seven passes for 84 yards, while Brandin Cooks caught six for 100. The Jags were tagged with six penalties for 98 yards — including pass-interference calls of 37 and 36 yards. The Patriots were flagged once for 10 yards.
Once again, the Patriots are not only better, they are smarter.
“We got to write our own story tonight,’’ said Brady.
They did. And that story seems to end the same way every time . . . with the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Watch: Amendola: “It came down to the wire.”
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