By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — It’s always somebody. You just never know who it’s going to be.
In recent years, it’s been Julian Edelman, or Rob Gronkowski, or Dion Lewis, or James White, or Chris Hogan. But on Sunday, in an AFC Championship Game in which they trailed 20-10 through the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, it was Danny Amendola who stepped up and put the team on his back.
As a result, the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl.
“Danny’s such a good football player,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after his team completed a 24-20 comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. “When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary, his picture is right there beside it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery – whatever we need him to do. He’s just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration. He had some big plays for us today.”
On Sunday, Amendola truly did it all — especially when the whole season was hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter.
On a third-and-18 from the New England 25-yard line, the Patriots faced long odds of converting. But Tom Brady waited for No. 80 to find a soft spot in the Jaguars’ defense before delivering a pass deep down the middle of the field. Amendola made the catch despite safety Tashaun Gipson harassing him for a gain of 21 yards and a critical first down.
“I tried to throw it where he could get it and he made a hell of a catch,” Brady said. “So, it was an unbelievable catch and big play in the game. I mean, that ended up being a huge drive for us, and without that, we don’t go down and score that touchdown.”
That touchdown ended up going to Amendola, who had set up the Patriots with a 14-yard reception to get them inside the Jaguars’ 10-yard line. Brady went back to Amendola after that play, and the receiver made the catch at the 5-yard line and ran it in for the score to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 20-17 with 8:46 left in the game.
But there remained work to be done. After a punt each for Jacksonville and New England, the Jaguars faced a third-and-11 from their own 9-yard line. James Harrison and Trey Flowers pressured Blake Bortles to throw incomplete, and the Jaguars had to punt from deep in their own territory.
The Jaguars went with a quick snap on the punt, and it did not work out well for them. Brad Nortman’s kick traveled 41 yards to midfield, but it lacked hang time. Amendola caught the punt and broke off a 20-yard return.
“It just comes down to making a play when you get the ball in your hands, following a block or two or seeing any open space to get to,” Amendola said of the return. “That was it.”
Immediately, the Patriots were already in range for a game-tying field goal. But with 4:58 left on the clock, the offense had plenty of time to engineer a touchdown drive. And that once again involved a heavy dose of Amendola.
After a 15-yard catch-and-run by White, Brady went to Amendola for an 8-yard pickup to once again get the Patriots inside the Jaguars’ 10-yard line. Three plays later, the Patriots ran a play-action fake to White on second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, and when Brady’s initial read for Brandin Cooks wasn’t open, he looked to the back of the end zone for No. 80.
The pass at first didn’t appear to have a prayer of being caught. But Amendola left his feet, secured the football, and tapped both feet in bounds before holding the ball tightly to his chest.
Just like that, after trailing for 41:27 of game time, the Patriots were on top. The lead would stick, and the Patriots were on to the Super Bowl. It’s a trip they wouldn’t be making without Amendola.
It was an especially important performance for Amendola, considering the Patriots were without Rob Gronkowski for the entire second half after the tight end sustained a concussion. Brady needed somebody to step up, and Amendola was up for the challenge. The receiver said, however, that Gronkowski’s absence doesn’t change his approach every snap.
“I don’t feel any added pressure, no. Every play I’m competing my tail off to try to win the route, win the block or whatever my job is on that play,” Amendola said. “Whoever is in the game, whoever is beside me, I have a lot of trust and faith in them whether it’s Gronk or Cookie or [Chris Hogan]. Whoever it is, I know we have a lot of trust in this room.”
To add to the showing, Amendola even completed a pass, throwing the ball across the width of the field to Dion Lewis for a gain of 20 yards. Though Lewis eventually fumbled that ball, he came away extremely impressed with his teammate.
“Gronk is a big part of our offense, everybody knows that. Other guys stepped up,” Lewis said. “Amendola is a [expletive] animal. A [expletive] animal. I am cussing, I don’t care. He’s an animal. He’s a beast. To see how the way he played, everyone played so hard. I am just happy to be a part of it.”
The seven-catch, 84-yard, two-touchdown performance from Amendola now gets added to an already-impressive postseason resume. He entered the game with 42 receptions for 473 yards and four touchdowns in 11 postseason games, and he was coming off an 11-catch, 112-yard showing in last week’s win over the Titans. In his two Super Bowls, Amendola has caught a combined 13 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns.
“You just wait for it. Come the end the season, he’s going to make some unbelievable catch on a third-down conversion. It’s going to be a touchdown, it’s going to be something big and there he was,” Nate Solder said. “I was not surprised and the guys that know him weren’t surprised. That’s just the way that he is.”
Over in the losing locker room, Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey offered a bit of a snarky comment about Amendola.
“We were in zone, and he found openings. When we were in man-to-man he was, like you said, pretty quiet,” the always-confident Ramsey said when asked how Amendola made such an impact late in the game. “So in the zone, he found the openings; he’s good at that. And Tom did what he does.”
Ramsey’s not the first person to slight Amendola, who went undrafted and had to fight for everything he’s gotten in the NFL. But Amendola will now be playing in his third Super Bowl in the past four years. That’s not by coincidence.
“Amendola – everyone says it all the time – he’s clutch,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said. “That’s another guy, you don’t worry about being prepared, you don’t worry about having to show up. He’s going to go out there and do whatever it takes, whether that is punt returning or that is making a tough catch over the middle. Obviously, one of the smaller guys on the field, if he’s coming down to crack block somebody, or block the linebacker, block an end, I don’t think any of our coaches have a doubt that if you put Amendola in that situation, he’ll go over there and give it everything he has. So, he exemplifies being a great teammate, he’s a brother in that locker room, a veteran guy, and [has] great leadership.
“To me, that’s what leadership is, and he shows up when we need it the most. Obviously, tonight we needed a big game out of him. I’m sure we’ll need more big catches in a couple weeks, and I’m sure he’ll be there ready to produce.”
History shows that McCourty will likely be proven correct. At the very least, the Patriots know that when they take the field on Feb. 4 against the Eagles, they know Amendola will be ready to do whatever’s necessary — something that’s become his calling card.