Everyone knew it was coming. Like a freight train storming down the tracks, Tom Brady and the Patriots were not going to be denied an eighth opportunity to win a Super Bowl, not with the ball in No. 12's hands with 4:58 left, 70 yards to go and the Patriots trailing 20-17. The Greatest Quarterback of All Time -- and Brady is just that -- did not earn his reputation by wilting under the heat of the spotlight.
Long before Brady was a stat monster, he was an early 2000s clutch machine, surgically carving up defenses late in games to lead the Pats to victory. Needing a score to advance to the Super Bowl, Brady picked up his scalpel and went to work on a Jaguars defense that had done its part for most of the night to keep Jacksonville in the game.
Brady delivered clutch throw after clutch throw after clutch throw down the stretch, including a toe-dragging touchdown to Danny Amendola, who turns into a super human in the playoffs, on second-and-goal to give the Pats the lead.
That was the Patriots' second touchdown during the final 10 minutes of the game, helping to erase a 10-point fourth quarter deficit in a way only the Patriots can. We saw them come back from 28-3 against the Falcons in the Super Bowl last year; this wasn't as big of a comeback but it sure did feel like it was just as difficult as the fourth quarter began.
Jacksonville played incredible on defense throughout the game, Blake Bortles didn't make the mistakes that were hallmarks of his season and career and the Jags owned time of possession, appearing to set up Leonard Fournette for a late, big carry that could ice the game. It never came -- the Patriots defense stepped up and locked down Jacksonville's offense at the biggest possible moment.
Jaguars final four drives:— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 21, 2018
3 plays, 9 yards (Punt)
5 plays, 22 yards (Punt)
3 plays, -1 yards (Punt)
6 plays, 32 yards (TOD)
Before those final four drives, the Jags had held the Pats to SIX drives of less than 30 yards, while producing five different drives of 30 yards or more themselves. The Patriots defense stepped up in the clutch, got Brady the ball back in the fourth quarter and let the G.O.A.T. do what he does best: march down the field late in the game and beat an opponent at home in the playoffs.
There will be blame pushed toward the refs and there are individual situations worth noting, including Stephon Gilmore (more below) and a bad penalty in the first half, but the bottom line is this: if you give Tom Brady a chance to beat you late in the fourth quarter, you're going to lose.
Appreciating the Jaguars
Expect a lot of emotion from Jacksonville after this game, because the Jaguars poured EVERYTHING into it. They should have won. They weren't robbed, but they outplayed the Patriots for 45-plus minutes, they developed a fantastic offensive and defensive gameplan and executed in superb fashion.
There was a stretch there where you could argue Blake Bortles outplayed Tom Brady. At the end of the day, Brady was why the Pats won -- Bortles wasn't why the Jags lost, but he was clearly operating in a system designed to try and give him easy reads. He executed at a high level for the full game and gave his team a chance to win.
It's going to be interesting to see what happens with Bortles, and what happens with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Presumably he sticks around Jacksonville, with most of the open NFL jobs quickly closing. He should get some love moving forward because he did a great job game planning on offense.
Jacksonville has something special cooking with its defense, including linebacker Myles Jack, who fell to the second round of the draft thanks to injury. I have no idea how he was able to steal this ball. He took a man's lunch money.
Offensively there's a lot to work with, too, including Fournette, who showed some serious physicality during the past two weeks after a rookie season that was dominant at times, but not entirely consistent.
The Jaguars had a great season, developed a young defense, exceeded expectations on offense and nearly went to the king's house and won. It was a heck of an effort by a young team on the biggest stage.
Questioning the refs
Look, I understand what I'm inviting here by pointing out that there were some issues with the referees in a Patriots game. Go ahead and yell at me on Twitter @WillBrinson. I don't care. I mentioned that Marcedes Lewis didn't draw a flag for defensive pass interference twice in VERY obvious situations and Pats fans lost their mind, telling me to quit whining and to go look at some of the fouls Gronk deals with. Neither one is a good argument -- the Patriots clearly were the beneficiaries of not getting called for penalties in this game.
It's not the first time it's happened.
The Patriots were called for 1 penalty against the Jaguars— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2018
It is the fewest penalties called on one team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship... when the Patriots were called for 1 penalty in a win over the Ravens
And you can say that the Patriots didn't get many calls, and had a surprising replay situation go the other way (the Myles Jack fumble) but the reality is the Pats are probably going to get the calls late in games, not because the NFL has an agenda for them, but for the same reason LeBron James gets the benefit of the doubt or Mike Krzyzewski and Duke get the benefit of the doubt. Being really good for a really long time means you get the breaks.
Brady's hand was just fine
Anyone concerned about Brady's hand injury -- and there were plenty of people concerned and for pretty good reason -- can take a nice deep breath, because Brady clearly wasn't affected too much by the injury. He came out of the gate guns blazing, and went 6 for 6 on his first drive, which featured a crucial deep conversion on fourth-and-2 to Danny Amendola, a dime that put the Pats in field-goal range and kept their opening drive alive.
Asked by Jim Nantz after the game how bad the injury really was during the week, Brady grinned and gave another coy, but cocky, answer.
"Well, I said 'We'll see,' " Brady said. "How'd it go?"
It went very well. Brady clearly wasn't affected by the hand issue, starting out the game 6 for 6 and eventually finishing the game 26 for 38 for 290 yards and a pair of touchdowns (both to Amendola). Asked after the game about the injury, a clearly amped-up Bill Belichick pointed out that Brady's injury "wasn't open heart surgery."
Brady's hand won't be an issue in two weeks when the Patriots head to the Super Bowl but they might want to keep him away from Rex Burkhead on handoffs during practice.
First-half turning point
It will fall under the radar a little bit, but the Jaguars had a real opportunity to put the Patriots away in the first half and made a crucial error, ultimately costing themselves some points and giving New England enough time to score a touchdown.
On a third-and-7 from the Pats 44-yard line, Bortles ran a play and pushed the ball down the field to Marcedes Lewis for 12 yards and a first down, a beautiful back-shoulder throw in a big spot from the quarterback. One problem: he didn't get it off in time, and the Jags were flagged for delay of game, which pushed them into a third-and-12 scenario at midfield.
Bortles would get sacked and the Jags would punt. The Patriots casually marched 83 yards for a touchdown, picking up 47 yards in penalties on the way. James White would plunge in for a touchdown and instead of the Jags going up 17-3 or 21-3 at half, it was 14-10.
All 60 minutes of the game count, and the Pats caught a huge break from the Jaguars in that moment. They took advantage and it, and it was enough to be the difference in the game.
The Gilmore Play
Another critical play for the Patriots came late -- people say football is a game of inches, but it's a saying because it's real. Stephon Gilmore, who was given big money by the Patriots this offseason and came under fire early during the season, stepped up and made the defensive play of the game/week/year against Dede Westbrook.
With the Jags facing a fourth-and-game (maybe -- they had three timeouts but clearly were going for it), they ran a play that got Westbrook behind a safety and Bortles made a great throw. Only Gilmore decided to earn his annual paycheck on a single play.
That's a high-level, athletic play by a cornerback. And if Gilmore doesn't make it, there is a chance Westbrook goes into the end zone. Maybe that's too much time left on the clock for the Pats and maybe Brady still marches down to win if the Jags score there. But that was a good play call and a good throw and just a better play by a big-time defender who Belichick invested in this offseason.
The Gronk Factor
For the second time this postseason we saw one of the two best tight ends in football suffer a concussion, get ruled out for the game and then have his offense struggle in the second half. The Chiefs were up 14-3 when they lost Travis Kelce and would score again before the half, but were held scoreless after that. The Patriots managed more offense than KC, but dealt with a similar injury, as Rob Gronkowski was ruled out of the game with a concussion.
Gronk was targeted only twice and caught only one pass, but the one pass was costly, as Gronk was nailed by Barry Church on the play. He .
According to Tracy Wolfson on the sidelines, he got up and was just saying "wow, wow" and, as everyone noticed, completely woozy. The Patriots got lucky to be able to win this game without Gronk, and they got luckier he'll likely be ready to play in two weeks.
Here's Bill Belichick Smiling
I'm recording it for posterity.
Well the Super Bowl obviously for the Patriots, who advance to play the winner of the Vikings and Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Getting two weeks for Brady and Gronk to heal is massive for the Pats, who will be favored against whoever they play. Bank on it being Pats minus-3 against the Vikings and Pats minus-7 against the Eagles.
For Jacksonville, there is a legit question about the offseason and how to approach the quarterback situation. Bortles has been good for them this season, but you can argue not having a better option at quarterback cost them in that game.
Check out the live blog below to relive all the highlights from the AFC Championship Game.