JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Patriots’ defense finally made a big play, when Kyle Van Noy came down with an interception early in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were only down by 11, and in scoring range. The comeback was on . . . again.
Until it wasn’t.
Sunday’s game didn’t follow the Patriots’ familiar script. Dante Fowler made sure of it, sack-stripping Brady and ending any chance of a Patriots comeback in their 31-20 loss to the Jaguars on Sunday.
“We made a play, but then they made a play,” safety Devin McCourty said. “When you’re in a hole, it’s different. We went down by so much, each time they made a play, it put us in a bigger hole.”
There would be no epic comeback like against the Falcons two years ago, or like there was in last January’s AFC Championship game against this Jaguars team. There won’t be any 24-3 T-shirts commemorating a Patriots comeback win from Sunday.
Instead, all the Patriots get is an ugly, early-season “L” that will keep them humble this week as they prepare to face the Lions.
“We just need to play better defensively,” safety Duron Harmon added. “We’ve got to get off the field. They were driving the ball up and down on us the entire first half. Eventually in the second half we kind of slowed things down. But you get yourself in such a deep hole, things didn’t go our way.”
Not much went right for the Patriots over the first 45 minutes of the game. The Jaguars raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead, and pushed it to 24-3 midway through the third quarter. The Patriots’ defense couldn’t slow down the Jaguars’ crossing routes, and Tom Brady couldn’t get anything going on offense.
But in a flash, the Patriots grabbed the momentum, and had Jaguars fans across North Florida biting their fingernails. The Patriots came back from 20-10 in the fourth quarter last January, why couldn’t they come back from 24-3 this time?
A fumble by Jaguars receiver D.J. Chark led to a 7-yard TD for Chris Hogan. A quick three-and-out by the Jaguars led to a field goal at the start of the fourth quarter, and a 24-13 deficit.
Two plays later, Van Noy intercepted Blake Bortles over the middle, thanks to an assist from cornerback Jonathan Jones.
“We all did our job on that, and I was there to finish the play. That’s about it,” Van Noy said.
The Patriots got the ball back at the Jaguars’ 25-yard line. There were more than 13 minutes still on the clock. The Patriots were only down 11 points.
Cue the Hollywood comeback.
We’ve seen it from Brady and the Patriots dozens of times. The Patriots’ defense came off the field with all the momentum and confidence in the world. They were going to do it to the Jaguars — again.
“We always think that as a team. We always believe in each other,” McCourty said.
Except this movie had a surprise ending. After an incompletion and a stuffed run by James White, Brady dropped back to pass on third and 9. Fowler, who had two sacks in January’s matchup, beat LaAdrian Waddle around the edge, swatted the ball out of Brady’s hands, and pounced on it at the Jaguars’ 32-yard line.
“We had a crossing route and just as our guys were kind of getting to their junction of crossing, I was just getting ready to actually throw it away because I felt like someone was coming, and the next thing you know the ball was on the ground. You know — got to throw it away quicker,” Brady said.
Fowler’s sack was eerily reminiscent of Brandon Graham’s strip-sack in the Super Bowl that sealed the victory for the Eagles.
Waddle was only playing because starting right tackle Marcus Cannon was ruled out with a calf injury.
“What else is there to say? It’s a Fowler sack,” Waddle said. “Turning the ball over is never good. We’ve got to do better — period, end of story.”
Waddle and the offensive line held up well for most of the game. The Jaguars’ ferocious front seven only managed two sacks and three quarterback hits on Brady’s 37 dropbacks, and one of each actually came from cornerback D.J. Hayden.
But Fowler and the Jaguars made one play when they needed it the most. And the Patriots didn’t.
“I knew we were going to get there eventually,” Fowler said. “We came in at halftime and we said that we need to make a play, we need to get a takeaway. I told myself that I would put it upon myself that I’d do it for my team and I was able to make that happen.”
And the Jaguars ensured that the Patriots wouldn’t have any opportunity for a miracle comeback. After finishing January’s game conservatively, running the ball and taking it out of Bortles’s hands, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone went for the jugular.
Bortles threw a 61-yard touchdown to Dede Westbrook to push the score to 31-13 and end any Patriots threat. Even in the closing minutes, Bortles threw a 22-yarder to Niles Paul and a 5-yarder to Corey Grant to seal the victory.
Bortles completed 29 of 45 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns, and the interception.
“That is how we want to win,” Jaguars guard Brandon Linder said. “We kept saying, ‘Don’t take your foot off the throat.’ That is what we kept saying and we did that.”
The Patriots didn’t pull off the miracle comeback this time, and they lost a conference game to a key AFC opponent that could contend for home-field advantage.
This time, it was Fowler and the Jaguars making the key play, and making sure the Patriots didn’t complete a Hollywood ending.
“That was epic, man, because you know New England is going to make their little push,” Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack said. “We’re like, ‘OK, 3, we have to settle for a field goal.’ But we got something even better, a strip-sack. So credit to Dante, he made a hell of a play.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.