24 thoughts on the Patriots’ 24-20 victory over the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
1. Tom Brady’s greatest comeback had already been achieved before Sunday. If you can fathom a rally exceeding the comeback from a 28-3 hole against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, you have a more willing suspension of disbelief than I ever have or will.
2. But what Brady and the Patriots achieved Sunday? It’s in the argument for second place. Though I’d give the nod to the Super Bowl XLIX rally from 10 points down to beat the Seahawks, this was quite similar, and the degree of difficulty might have been even higher. I think I need to watch it again to be sure it happened, even though so many like it have happened before in this era.
3. The Patriots trailed 20-10 with just under 9 minutes remaining. They were playing without Rob Gronkowski, lost for the game with a concussion in the first half. They were facing the No. 2 defense in the NFL and the No. 1 pass defense. To that point, they had not scored in the second half. It looked bleak.
4. So what happens? Brady does what Brady does, which is perform under the most intense pressure with unimaginable focus and poise. He threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola with 8:53 left. That worked so well that he did it again with 2:56 left. Then Patriots defense stiffened, and so did the Jaguars’ so talkative throats. The result: A 24-20 victory. An eighth trip to the Super Bowl for Brady and Bill Belichick in tandem. And one more comeback that would be the greatest achievement in most quarterbacks’ careers, but for Brady is merely one more unbelievable moment turned reality.
5. It wasn’t just Brady, of course. Amendola, who seems to make more huge postseason plays while receiving a smaller salary each year, was Mr. Clutch, with seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. We may not realize it now, but when we look back someday at all the big plays he’s made through the years, the realization will come: He belongs in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Watch: Danny Amendola: “We knew it was going to come down to the wire.”
6. Credit to the defense, too. Blake Bortles, that punchline of a quarterback, was outstanding in the first half, having completed 15 of 19 passes for 184 yards at one point. But in the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, the defense made play after play after play.
7. They stuffed running back Leonard Fournette when the Jaguars tried to run down the clock. They beleaguered Bortles with their blitzes and coverages when the game was on the line. James Harrison, the Steelers refugee who lasted longer this postseason than they did, and Trey Flowers suddenly began having regular meetings on the opposite sides of Bortles’ torso.
8. There might have been some frustration over the first three quarters with the defensive backs’ inability to make a play on the interception-prone Bortles. But Stephon Gilmore made up for it after the Patriots went ahead with a one-handed pass breakup that might have been the most athletic play made by a Patriots defender this season. He almost earned his season’s salary on that play. OK, forget the almost.
9. The Patriots cut it to 20-17 on a drive that was quintessential Brady, a sign that more magic might be on the way. On third and 18 and under siege, he threw a dart to ol’ reliable Amendola for 21 yards. On the next play, a flea flicker, good for 31 yards to forgotten man Phillip Dorsett. Three plays later, he found Amendola again, for a 9-yard touchdown pass. Quintessentially Brady, and brilliant by any measure. And of course, that was just the warmup act.
10. You’ll hear people say that they never thought it was over. But it sure looked that way early in the fourth, with the Patriots down 20-10. After catching the back half of a double pass, Dion Lewis appeared to have a convoy down the left sideline. The play looked a little like the Music City Miracle, though that came on a kickoff.
11. But speedy Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack got to Lewis, popped the ball loose, and in one motion hauled it into his possession. From beginning to end, I can’t recall ever seeing a play like it.
12. It looked like the sad punctuation on what had been a rough day for Lewis at that point. But he got his redemption too, with an 18-yard run with 1:38 left that clinched the victory.
13. For so much of the game, it was the Patriots who made the mistakes. Brandin Cooks, whose GPS never seems quite right when he’s tracking long passes, dropped a pass in the second half that might have gone for the tying touchdown, or at least set it up.
14. Perhaps Cooks is not totally trustworthy. But he was so important, catching 6 passes for 100 yards while drawing another 68 yards in penalties.
15. Turns out the Jaguars do not, as the joke on the brilliant “The Good Place” suggests, need a new offense, a new defense, and some rule changes to be a good team. Defensively, they are as legit as legit can be.
16. Question about a vanquished opponent that is worthy of much respect: At what point did you realize the Jaguars had no intention of going quietly, presuming you thought they would in the first place?
17. Was it when, after holding the Patriots to a field goal on the first possession, the Jaguars marched 76 yards on 10 plays, the creative drive culminating with a perfectly executed 4-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Marcedes Lewis?
18. Was it when Leonard Fournette stood up Kyle Van Noy and bulled his way into the end zone for a 14-3 Jaguars lead in the second quarter? I haven’t seen a running back overwhelm a linebacker like that at the point of attack since Earl Campbell famously rattled Isaiah Robertson’s bones on Monday Night Football.
19. For me, it came sometime between the Patriots first possession and the moment in the second quarter when Jim Nantz told us that the Jaguars had outgained the Patriots, 185 to minus-1, since the start of Jacksonville’s second possession.
20. The Tom Coughlin, Belichick Slayer storyline got old about a week ago, but the Jaguars’ creative, time-killing offense, and ferocious defense sure made it feel like one Giants Super Bowl loss or the other. I’m so glad the Coughlin Owns ‘Em storyline expired today.
21. The Patriots were fortunate to be down just 14-10 at the half, especially since Jaguars safety Barry Church’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Rob Gronkowski sent him wobbling to the locker room with about a minute and a half left in the second quarter.
22. But the Jaguars’ knucklehead factor contributed to the Patriots getting a crucial touchdown before the half, a James White one-yard run. Bortles failed to beat the play clock on a third down, costing the Jaguars a first down. After the change of possession, the Jaguars handed the Patriots 15 yards for unnecessary roughness on the Gronk hit.
23. That wasn’t the end of it. On the play after that, A.J. Bouye was flagged for pass interference on a deep heave to Cooks, a 32-yard mistake that put the ball on the Jacksonville 10. It was the first stretch during the game in which Jacksonville looked inexperienced and undisciplined. It foreshadowed what was to come in the fourth.
24. Oh, by the way: Brady’s hand was fine.
Video: Bill Belichick on Tom Brady’s hand injury: “We’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”