Despite talks of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s injured hand and the behind-the-scenes conflict between the Patriots’ triumvirate of Brady, Head Coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft, the Patriots continue to do what the Patriots always do: win.
That platitude held true once again at the Jan. 21 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are set to head to Super Bowl LII after they rallied to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20.
Brady, donning a black bandage over a cut on his hand that required 12 stitches, led the Patriots from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a four-point victory. With the season on the line, Brady threw 26 of 38 for 290 yards passing and two touchdowns.
The box score tells the simple story of yet another Patriots win and Super Bowl berth. But those who watched Sunday’s AFC matchup will remember a game dominated largely by the Jaguars.
The Patriots struck first with a field goal from kicker Stephen Gostkowski. But from there, Jacksonville took the wheel.
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (23-36, 293 yards passing) began the team’s second drive with a 20-yard pass to running back Corey Grant. The Jaguars continued to utilize these short screen passes and slant routes, as they slowly chipped away yards. Ultimately, Bortles lofted a pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis, who was wide open in the right side of the end zone.
On their next drive, the Jaguars’ momentum continued. Bortles, who may have played his best game of the season, made a rare, deep 27-yard pass to wide receiver Allen Hurns, and star rookie running back Leonard Fournette converted a pivotal third down conversion. Fournette eventually capped off the drive with a four-yard rushing touchdown, giving the Jaguars a 14-3 edge.
But right before halftime, the Patriots scored a touchdown of their own, primarily due to an unnecessary roughness and pass interference penalty by the Jaguars. That led to a one-yard touchdown rush by running back James White, which cut the deficit to 14-10 at halftime.
But that touchdown came at the cost of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a head injury following a crushing hit by Jaguar safety Barry Church. Gronkowski did not return for the rest of the game. The team is optimistic that he will return to play before the Super Bowl, according to an SB Nation report.
After the intermission, the Jaguars continued to put points on the board. With two field goals by kicker Josh Lambo, the Jaguars held a 20-10 advantage near the start of the fourth quarter.
But they don’t call Brady “Captain Comeback” for nothing.
With their star tight end ruled out for the remainder of the game, the Patriots were forced to alter their game plan. Brady relied on his wide receivers, specifically Danny Amendola, to spark their resurgence.
With 12 minutes remaining in the fourth, Brady produced long passes to receivers Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Amendola. The drive was eventually finished off by a nine-yard pass from Brady to Amendola, which cut the Jaguars’ lead to three.
After a Jacksonville punt, the Patriots began their winning drive at the Jaguars’ 30-yard line with fewer than five minutes left in regulation.
Brady started with a short screen pass to White, who turned upfield for a 15-yard gain. The Patriots then gained 10 more, following a quick pass to Amendola. This led to a remarkable four-yard touchdown, where Brady passed deep into the end zone to Amendola, who somehow kept both feet inbounds.
With fewer than three minutes remaining and now trailing 24-20, the Jaguars still had a chance to score a touchdown and reclaim the lead. Now adopting an aggressive approach, Bortles began with a long pass to wide receiver Dede Westbrook down the left sideline, advancing the Jags into Patriot territory. But a sack by Patriot linebacker Kyle Van Noy on second down and a beautiful pass breakup by cornerback Stephon Gilmore on fourth down sealed the Jaguars’ fate.
With their victory Sunday, the Patriots have won their 10th Lamar Hunt Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the AFC Championship Game. Already the winningest quarterback of all time, Brady hopes to win his and the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title in what will be his eighth visit to football’s greatest stage.
The New England Patriots will play the Philadelphia Eagles Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. (ET) in Minneapolis, Minn., to determine the champion of Super Bowl LII.