By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Yikes. So, another Super Bowl, huh?
Three weeks ago, we all kind of agreed that it was inevitable that the Patriots would be heading to the Super Bowl. We could look ahead, see the competition, and reasonably conclude that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would be heading to Super Bowl No. 8 together.
But not like that.
Now granted, given what we’ve seen out of the Patriots over the past 17 years and just in the past four years, we’ve been conditioned to believe they’re never out of any game. No comeback is too steep. So nobody was exactly shocked to see the Patriots wipe out a 10-point deficit and turn it into a four-point lead — and doing with 2:56 to spare.
But come on. When Dion Lewis put the ball on the turf a minute into the fourth quarter, you had to at least start wondering what it would be like to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars play in the Super Bowl. You had to. Even with Tom Brady, a 10-point deficit with 12 minutes to play is difficult to make up in an NFL game.
Then again, maybe it’s not. A big hit by Devin McCourty (with some assistance by Eric Rowe), and the Patriots had the ball. An 18-yarder to Danny Amendola followed, and then a flea flicker to Phillip Dorsett (yes, Phillip Dorsett) for 31 yards.
Amendola then caught this pass:
Amendola scored a touchdown a play later, and the Jacksonville lead was just three.
Still — still! — the climb remained steep. Blake Bortles completed a 20-yarder to Allen Hurns, and Bortles tried to complete a pass to Marcedes Lewis on third down to get the ball across midfield. Patrick Chung made sure it didn’t connect.
Things officially got dicey when the Patriots’ offense stalled following a 36-yard pass interference penalty drawn by Brandin Cooks. Ryan Allen had to punt with 6:00 left in the game. There was no guarantee that the Patriots would even touch the ball again.
But Allen dropped his punt perfectly on the 10-yard line. Chung stopped Leonard Fournette for a one-yard loss, Eric Rowe broke up a deep out to Hurns, and the duo of Trey Flowers and James Harrison clobbered Bortles to force a third-down incompletion.
Amendola then faked a poison signal before breaking off a 20-yard return. James White then caught a screen and followed blocks by David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney and Cooks for a 15-yard gain.
Amendola then caught this pass:
And then he caught this pass:
A four-point lead. And yet — and yet! — the defense still needed a stop.
Instead, Stephon Gilmore got fooled by Dede Westbrook on a 29-yard gain. Then, Marquis Flowers had Fournette covered tightly to force an incompletion. Kyle Van Noy and Harrison then converged upon Bortles and forced a fumble. After a checkdown on third-and-19, the Jaguars faced a fourth-and-15. They went for it all. Gilmore made the play of his life:
The place went nuts. The Super Bowl was within sight. But again — again! — the game was not over. Jacksonville had all three timeouts, so the Patriots needed a first down in order to ice the game and run out the clock.
And what’d they do? On a third-and-9, they lined up with a fullback in the backfield, and they motioned Dwayne Allen right to left. They all but told the Jaguars they’d be running the ball to left side, strength vs. strength, for a put your head down and see who’s stronger type of play.
James Develin clared out Tashaun Gipson. Allen and the offensive line held their blocks. Chris Hogan blocked A.J. Bouye 20 yards up the field. Lewis — who had put the game in jeopardy with his fumble — had redemption.
And, at long last, finally, the Patriots had secured their trip to the Super Bowl.
We simplify these things and say “Brady and Belichick,” because, well, they are the greatest. But when you really break it down and itemize how these comebacks happen, the execution from the top of the roster to the bottom always stands out. In briefly going through the keys of the comeback, I listed 18 players who made crucial plays. Without them, who knows how it ends?
Surely, at the most important position, it helps to have the greatest of all time. But the guts that this team displays in these big moments cannot be understated. Among Belichick’s many great abilities as a roster builder is his recognition of intangibles. When you have a 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl followed by a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback in the AFC Championship Game, you’ve clearly collected enough guys with the right DNA to be the better team on the biggest stages.
All right. That was fun. Leftover thoughts.
–I knew Tom Brady would be fine after the second play of the game. Perfect pass, up the right seam, hitting Brandin Cooks in stride for a gain of 31 yards.
The Jaguars learned two things on that play: Brady’s hand was OK, and Telvin Smith cannot cover Brandin Cooks:
–An underrated player in this game was Trey Flowers. He’s probably a very underrated player in general. I thought he turned in an MVP type of performance in last year’s Super Bowl, and he was arguably the Patriots’ best defensive player in this one.
It showed up on the stat sheet, with nine tackles (five solo), one pass defense, and four hits on the quarterback. But the timing on some of those plays was massive. He got a hand in Blake Bortles’ face to force an early third-down incompletion. He swatted a pass on a third down to end the opening drive of the second half. On another third down later in the third quarter, he combined with Deatrich Wise to pop T.J. Yeldon at the line. On a Jacksonville third-and-10 deep in their own end, Flowers combined with Harrison to level Bortles and force another punt. The go-ahead touchdown followed shortly thereafter. He was basically Mr. Third Down on this afternoon.
He also displayed some attitude against a very-confident Jaguars team. After tackling Fournette near the line of scrimmage, Flowers went full Allen Iverson-over-Tyronn-Lue with a step over the downed back:
Flowers probably doesn’t even get mentioned in national discussions about the best defensive players in football, but he is a bit of a diamond in the rough.
–There definitely had to be some moments in the first half where some of the members of the Detroit Lions brain trust gazed at each other with some apprehensive looks, as Matt Patricia’s defense was getting shredded by Corey Grant. The folks in Detroit better get ready for some wildly frustrating first halves followed by second-half shutdowns.
–The Barry Church hit on Rob Gronkowski was obviously too much for any man to withstand. But earlier in the second quarter, Gronkowski took a shot and not only hung on to the ball but stayed in the game.
Gronkowski lined up with a hand in the ground on the right side before running a corner route. He made the catch at about the 30-yard line before getting rocked by Jalen Ramsey:
–The Church hit on Gronkowski was absolutely a penalty (I don’t know how the Jaguars disagreed with this), but I don’t think it was dirty. It was a hard hit, delivered with some recklessness, which led to helmet-to-helmet contact on a defenseless receiver. It was a textbook penalty.
Celebrating over the concussed body doesn’t help the Jaguar’s case that it was a clean play:
That was reminiscent of when Bernard Pollard celebrated after knocking Stevan Ridley out of an AFC title game a few years back:
I think the hit speaks to a larger issue in the game, one that’s really not easy to legislate out of the sport entirely. The league may be trying — or, more accurately, trying to make it look like they’re trying — to protect players, but the balance on plays like this is still weighted in favor of the defense. It’s barbaric to say out loud, but it’s true: A defense would gladly give up 15 yards of field position if it meant the opposing team’s most unstoppable force would miss the rest of the game.
The Titans did it to Travis Kelce (on a play that wasn’t even illegal and thus didn’t get flagged), and they ended up winning a playoff game largely as a result of knocking the tight end out of the game. The Jaguars nearly did the same.
It’s certainly a problem with football. There’s not really a solution, either.
–If you picked against the Jaguars this week, then you probably thought it was inevitable before they did some stupid stuff and played like an inexperienced team on the road in a playoff game. You were proven correct.
The game obviously turned quite a bit after the delay of game penalty with 2:23 left in the first half. Bortles actually threw his best pass of the day for a 12-yard gain that would’ve put the Jaguars in field-goal range at the very least. Instead, the play didn’t count, and the Jags fell apart on the next play. Left tackle Cam Robinson took a holding penalty and Bortles ran in a circle before being sacked, putting himself at great risk for a fumble. The Jaguars had to punt, and the Patriots marched down the field (thanks to 47 free yards gifted to them via penalties by the Jaguars) for their first touchdown of the game to cut the score to 14-10. If not for the delay of game, the Jags were looking at either a 17-3 or 21-3 lead before halftime. It was a massive swing.
Mind you, the delay of game came after a timeout, so there was really no excuse for the Jaguars not getting off the snap.
Head coach Doug Marrone offered up this brilliant explanation: “Yeah I just thought out of the timeout we lost track.”
They followed that up with a 15-yard penalty for the hit on Gronkowski, a 32-yard penalty for pass interference, and a walk-in touchdown run for James White where he wasn’t touched until he was two yards deep in the end zone. They also allowed Brady to go 4-for-4 for 35 yards on the drive.
Warren Sharp tweeted an excellent thread which got into the details of how poorly the Jaguars executed in the second half. It’s interesting … but it’s not rocket science. How the Jaguars couldn’t do much of anything right after starting so well remains mystifying.
–There was a lot of hullabaloo about the A.J. Bouye pass interference penalty. To that I say this: balderdash!
There was hand fighting on both sides. That went uncalled. But Bouye cut off Cooks’ route up the sideline without looking back for the football. That is, by definition, one of the violations that constitutes pass interference. See: “Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball.”
Cooks is trying to stay in the field of play at this point, with his eyes looking up at the ball. Bouye is only looking at Cooks:
Bouye got his hands on Cooks’ shoulders and forced him out of bounds, which would have constituted pass interference even if Bouye had been looking back for the ball (which he wasn’t):
By the time Bouye actually looked back for the ball, Cooks had already been forced out of bounds. The pass fell four yards ahead of Cooks. Anyone saying that it was uncatchable was wrong.
It was just a basic PI call. Happens all the time. To suggest that was home cooking or that it rises to conspiracy levels is just crazy.
–Cooks had an excellent game, by the way. He’s lately inspired a lot of complaints around here. Even during the game. Granted, his drop was bad. But he caught six balls for 100 yards and drew 68 yards on a pair of pass interference penalties. They don’t win that game without him.
He also finished a season as the fifth wide receiver in the Belichick/Brady era to record 1,000 receiving yards. He performed as well as expected. He may not be “perfect” in every way but he’s a dynamic deep threat who played 93 percent of the team’s offensive snaps during the season and performed right in line with what should have been expected.
–The hit of the game belong to Jaguars defensive tackle Abry Jones. The 6-foot-4, 318-pound giant pursued Dion Lewis. When Lewis stopped to avoid a tackle by the much-smaller Aaron Colvin, Jones was there to clean him out. It looked like Andre The Giant delivering a forearm shiver to … well, to Dion Lewis.
–Occasionally, some Patriot opponents employ a zero-human defense when not covering Rob Gronkowski or Chris Hogan or any other Patriot receiver. On Sunday, the Jaguars employed a zero-human offensive line when they allowed literally everybody to sack Blake Bortles:
That play had a pretty low chance of success for Jacksonville.
All the Patriots did, really, was blitz Patrick Chung off the right end. Fournette thought he’d pick up Chung, but Lewis tried to make the block, thus giving a free lane to Flowers:
With a full head of steam, Flowers steamrolled the late-arriving Fournette:
Complicating matters, Lewis couldn’t block Chung, as you can see above.
And that’s just one side of the line. James Harrison beat Cam Robinson to the outside on the right end, and Ricky Jean-Francois would have been in on the sack too if guard Patrick Omameh didn’t put a bear hug on him:
What a mess.
–Also a mess: Some of Bortles’ passes. Like this one:
Or this one:
I don’t want to pull the thing where someone spends 15 minutes in a team’s locker room and pretends like he knows everything about the players … but I will say this: I came away impressed with the Jaguars’ team temperament after the loss. They weren’t running their mouths or complaining much. They believed they should have won the game, and they were miffed that they came up short. I think they have a bright future ahead of them. They all seem to really believe in what they’re doing and what their potential can be.
But they might want to get a new quarterback. That is all.
–I mentioned it (much) earlier, but McCourty finished a tackle to force a Jacksonville punt in the fourth quarter. Rowe helped, too. McCourty put all of his effort into delivering a shot to the back of Hurns on a third-and-8. It was a huge hit, but Hurns kept his feet and was fighting for more. He might have won the wrestling match too, as McCourty was down on his knees and had no leverage:
But McCourty ended up driving Hurns backward anyway.
A little mano-a-mano match right there, and McCourty won. (Rowe was also there to go over the top if need be.)
–Gilmore’s pass breakup on fourth down to force the turnover on downs obviously got a lot of pub. Rightfully so. But it wasn’t the only play he made in the fourth quarter.
Bortles threw deep up the left sideline to Westbrook with 6:40 left in the game, and it looked like Gilmore ran the route better than Westbrook. The pass had a zero percent chance of being completed. Westbrook had to turn into a defensive back (and get away with a little OPI) to prevent a pick:
Gilmore does his homework.
–Tom Brady is 40 (you’ve heard this once or twice), and though he claims that he’s going to live forever in a magical fairy tale where giant defensive lineman and linebackers don’t crush quarterbacks every play, I do believe he will retire some day. And while it may not be this year, or next year, it was clear after the game that Brady was a little bit extra reflective after winning his eighth AFC title game. Here’s a post game exchange with reporters.
Q: As you head to your eighth Super Bowl at the age of 40, are you able to appreciate this a little differently? Do you think about your kids being old enough to enjoy it or that different members of this team might not be here after this season?
TB: “I think for all of us it does because you cherish these moments and opportunities, and I know we’ve had quite a few of them, which we’ve been very blessed to do. It’s just been an unbelievable run, and I think everyone should be really proud of what we accomplished. This is a different team than last year’s team. It didn’t look good at 2-2 and you just keep showing up to work every day, and we sit in these chairs and Coach Belichick gets up here and he demands a lot out of us and he tries to get the most out of us every day. It’s not always great. Sometimes it’s pretty average and then you’re just trying to get better and better and get to the point where you can make the fourth quarter of a game and try to play well enough to get yourself into the next one. So, just proud of our team, proud of what we accomplished. It’s pretty amazing and proud of this team, great leadership and it’s just been a great year. It’d be really great if we take care of business in a couple weeks, so we’ll see.”
Q: If somebody had told you when you arrived here in 2000 that you would win three out of four Super Bowls early in your career and then have a chance to do it again 13 years later, what would you have thought?
TB: “I’d have thought you were crazy to think that or I was crazy to think that. This has just all been – I guess it’s my life, so I’m living it and it feels very natural and normal just because I wake up every day and I feel very much the same as I did when I walked in here 18 years ago, I really do. It’s a great privilege to play here and it’s a great privilege to play in the NFL, and I try to represent the team well, I try to represent my family, I try to do things the right way and I’m very blessed. I could never imagine getting the kind of team achievements we’ve done and had. I mean, I don’t think anyone can ever take those for granted. These are pretty amazing times for all of us – fans included, players, coaches, everyone. It’s very special.”
That it is. Now it’s on to Minneapolis for (at least) one more.