By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — There’s just no “getting used” to wins like this one.
Sure, over the past two decades, the duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick — with dozens of supporting cast members along the way — has proven that it can never be counted out of any game. So certainly, when the Patriots trailed the Jaguars 20-10 well into the fourth quarter, nobody inside Gillette Stadium believed the game had been lost.
Even still, wins like this one are hard to come by in the NFL. And though it was just one of several dozen incredible comebacks led by Brady in his Hall of Fame career, it was nevertheless an incredible performance from the entire team.
As a result, the Patriots are heading to the Super Bowl. But we’ve got two weeks to talk about that. Here are the Four Ups and Four Downs from the AFC Championship Game.
Danny Amendola is made of nails. Plain and simple.
Amendola came up big time after time during the comeback. He made a 21-yard reception deep over the middle with Tashaun Gipson draped over his back to convert an improbable third-and-18. A few plays later, he made a 14-yard catch to get the Patriots on the doorstep, and it was Amendola who made the touchdown catch in the end zone to cut the Jaguars’ lead to three points with 8:44 left to play.
Two drives later, Amendola caught a punt at the 50 and broke off a 20-yard return. Instantly, the Patriots were within range for the game-tying field goal. But they weren’t looking for a field goal. Amendola gained eight yards on the second play of the drive, and on a second-and-goal inside the 5-yard line, he came up with an incredible toe-tapping catch along the back line of the end zone to give the Patriots the lead. It held for the win.
Amendola finished with seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns, and he also had two punt returns for 25 total yards. Plus, he completed a 20-yard pass to Dion Lewis. He literally did everything.
As a big-money free agent signee, Stephon Gilmore faced some steep expectations to start the year. He had a slightly rocky start.
But he improved a great deal after those first few weeks and some time off due to a concussion, and his season at Gillette Stadium ended in the kind of fashion most players can only dream of.
Facing a fourth-and-15 at the New England 43-yard line, Blake Bortles lofted a pass deep to Dede Westbrook. A catch there, and the Jags would have been in prime position for the go-ahead score.
But Gilmore played the route and the ball perfectly, leaping and extending at the perfect time to break up the pass and force a turnover on downs. The Patriots picked up a first down on the ensuing possession and ran out the clock for the win.
“That’s why I’m here. That’s why I came here, to try and get to the Super Bowl,” Gilmore said in the victorious locker room. “I’m happy to be a Patriot. It feels great to be going to the Super Bowl. I still can’t really believe it. It feels great, but we got one more game to go.”
It says a lot about Tom Brady that in an AFC title game where he completes 68.4 percent of his passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions while having stitches in his throwing hand, his performance isn’t even the top story. But that is the standard that Brady’s set.
It was mentioned in the open to this story, but to reiterate: most NFL teams aren’t able to make comebacks in huge moments like the one we witnessed on Sunday afternoon. Brady makes them look commonplace. It’s something that probably won’t be fully appreciated until he retires. (That’s provided he does actually retire some day.)
Brady now advances to his eighth Super Bowl in 16 seasons as a starting quarterback in the NFL. That’s absurd.
There’s been a lot of complaining about Brandin Cooks around these parts lately for various reasons, but he certainly showed up for this one. He led the Patriots with an even 100 receiving yards, made on six receptions, and he also drew 68 combined yards of penalties on a pair of pass interference penalties on deep balls where he cleanly beat his defender. One of those penalties led to a New England touchdown.
James Harrison, Kyle Van Noy: The two combined for a strip sack on Bortles just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter to force Jacksonville into a third-and-19 with the game on the line. Belichick and/or Matt Patricia was/were so impressed by Harrison’s burst off the right end that they let him rush the passer on third and fourth down.
Ryan Allen: Punter talk doesn’t get the people going, but it helps win football games. Allen pinned the Jaguars inside their own 10-yard line twice in the third quarter, and he did it again in the fourth quarter. He’s been exceptional all year long, and he was at his best on Sunday.
No individual play had more emotional swings than a double-pass from Brady to Amendola to Dion Lewis. The slippery back finally found some open field, and he turned it into a 20-yard catch-and-run. But Myles Jack knocked the ball loose, forcing a fumble and costing the Patriots some sure points. Ball security is always the most critical aspect for any Patriots player, so that play stood out as a major negative.
Lewis was able to make amends when he broke off an 18-yard run on third-and-9 with 1:38 left in the fourth quarter to allow the Patriots to ice the game.
It was not all good news for the Patriots. Not at all. Rob Gronkowski left the game in the second quarter after taking a helmet-to-helmet shot from safety Barry Church. Gronkowski was visibly woozy after the hit, and he did not return.
While the tight end may be recovered in time for the Super Bowl, there’s just no telling when it comes to concussions.
The Patriots’ defense really struggled in the first half, particularly against running backs coming out of the backfield. Corey Grant gashed them for 59 yards on three receptions, and the Patriots struggled to adapt.
Patricia and Co. deserve loads of credit for adjusting at halftime and limiting the Jaguars to just six points in the second half. But it was dicey there through 30 minutes. Nobody expected Bortles to lead touchdown drives of 76 yards and 77 yards in Gillette Stadium.
Yes, he was in the ups. But he had a doozy of a drop while running a corner route early in the third corner. It would have been a huge gain of 30-plus yards and set up the Patriots for some points. Instead they ended up punting. It was a great game overall, but that drop would have had a bright spotlight on it if the comeback fell short.