For anyone who thought the Patriots match-up against the Jaguars would be an easy victory, Sunday’s battle at Gillette Stadium proved that the AFC South Champs are definitely headed in the right direction.
The Jaguars took New England down to the wire, with some big plays in key moments from quite a few Patriots players being the difference as they’ll now advance to Minnesota to take on the Eagles in two weeks.
WIth Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s eighth Super Bowl trip now up next, here are some thoughts on what was certainly a memorable win for this football team.
1) One thing Sunday proved was that unlike the Steelers, the Patriots are a team that plays all 60-minutes – For anyone who watched last week’s game between the Jaguars and Steelers, Sunday’s game certainly showed a stark difference between how Pittsburgh played compared to how New England performed when it mattered most. One of the biggest differences was the fact that this team was far superior when it came to playing situational football, as well as in finishing down the stretch. That was one of the biggest things that stood out as the Patriots fought their way back from being down 14-3 and then 20-10 before battling back and closing the Jaguars out with a 24-20 win. It wasn’t easy, and it was an impressive performance, especially since this Jaguars team more than proved to their critics that they’re every bit deserving of being the team that ended the year as the 2nd best team in the AFC.
The Jaguars were tough from the start, coming into this game with a solid game plan. They played New England hard for the entire game and didn’t give Brady or his receivers much breathing room offensively. The first half featured the Patriots marching down the field on their opening drive and kicked a field goal, only to struggle from there as Jacksonville stopped them on their next three possessions as they slowly began to pull away.
Sunday’s game was certainly the most physical of the ones we’ve seen, with Jacksonville putting some big hits on Brady and the receivers, with the Jaguars showing no fear in what CBS dubbed a “David vs Goliath” match-up that included a terrific opening from actor John Malkovich.
The NFL’s David vs. the NFL’s Goliath, for the right to play in the Super Bowl.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 21, 2018
But it was a big hit to Rob Gronkowski toward the end of the half that sparked fear into the fans in Gillette Stadium, with the veteran tight end sustaining a concussion with just minutes left in the first half. It was tough to take, as with the offense struggling, the Patriots were now forced to try and come back without their best offensive weapon in the second half.
But after getting down 14-3, the Patriots kept this game within reach and kept the pressure on Jacksonville, pulling away in the final minutes of the game after a touchdown from Brady to Danny Amendola, putting them ahead to stay at 24-20. The defense also never let up, making some key plays down the stretch to clinch the win, including a key play by Stephon Gilmore to knock down a fourth-down pass that lead to the Jaguars turning it over on downs.
“Look, it’s the AFC Championship,” said Belichick after the game. “You’ve got two good teams. That’s about what you expect it to be, to come down to the last possession, come down to the final play – play or two – whatever it is. It’s what we saw last week in a lot of playoff games. We’ve been in plenty of those before. You get two good teams and it comes down to a handful of plays.”
While it might not have gone the way everyone hoped, it’s a lot of the little things they did that the Steelers couldn’t that ended up being the reason why the Patriots are moving on to Minnesota, while the Steelers will join everyone else in watching it on television.
2) Jacksonville’s defense played as advertised – After Brady hit his first 7 passes during the first quarter, the second quarter ended up being a different story as the Jags clamped down and made things tough on New England’s passing game.
Brady finished the second quarter completing just 5-of-10 for 56 yards throwing the football and it wasn’t until the Patriots final possession of the half where they were finally able to get within striking distance. Facing 1st-and-10 from their own 40yd line with 1:28 left to go in the half, Brady threw deep downfield to Rob Gronkowski, with the veteran tight end taking a huge shot from safety Barry Church, who tried to lead with his shoulder but his head struck the side of Gronkowski’s helmet, dropping the tight end to the ground. The hit drew a 15-yard penalty and sidelined Gronkowski for the rest of the game after putting him into the concussion protocol.
On the next play Brady went deep again, throwing deep downfield to Brandin Cooks, who was pushed out of bounds by cornerback A.J. Bouye while the ball was in the air, drawing a pass interference penalty.
Bouye disagreed with the penalty, even though it was obvious while watching the replay that he pushed Cooks out of bounds while Cooks was trying to battle for the football.
“I just got to watch the tape,” Bouye said via ESPN. “I need to go look at the rule book on [pass interference penalties], because you’re telling me the receiver can have his hands on me the whole way down the field, but if I look for the ball and try to protect myself from being pushed, it’s a flag?”
Those two plays were big because it put New England at Jacksonville’s 13-yard line. Two plays later, James White scored and it got New England back in the game at 14-10.
Aside from those two miscues, the Jaguars tightened up in the second half, shutting the Patriots out after Jacksonville kicked a field goal to go up 17-10 to start the 3rd quarter, and then another to go up 20-10 to start the final quarter. To make matters worse, on the ensuing series after the Jaguars final field goal, the Patriots seemed like they were about to get back in the game after a double pass to Dion Lewis picked up 20-yards, but Lewis had the ball ripped away by linebacker Myles Jack as the running back hit the ground.
But after Jacksonville failed to capitalize, the Patriots offense managed to put together two scoring drives, lead largely by the play of Amendola. Give the Jaguars credit, they forced New England to earn everything, with Belichick pointing out that they were simply able to make more plays than they did.
“We fell behind and made more plays at the end,” said Belichick. “[We] played better defensively, played well in the kicking game, played well offensively when we needed to. I think that’s really the mark of this team and these players, is when we need it the most that’s when we played our best. Fortunately, we were able to do that today.”
Danny Amendola came up big on Sunday.
3) Danny Amendola was clutch on Sunday – There’s no question that with the absence of Julian Edelman, Amendola has been one of the most reliable players in New England’s offense this season and Sunday proved to be another big example of that.
Amendola ended up taking over the game, with the veteran receiver catching five of his seven receptions in the fourth quarter, including two touchdowns. He caught the first after the Patriots were able to keep the Jaguars from capitalizing on Lewis’ turnover, marching from their own 15 down to the Jacksonville’ 9-yard line. From there, Brady fired a strike to Amendola as he came across the middle, and then sliced his way in between defenders into the end zone for a touchdown. It was a huge play because it pulled New England within 3 points at 20-17 with 8:44 left in the game.
After the Jaguars forced a punt on the Patriots’ next possession, New England’s defense held and returned the favor, forcing a punt from the Jaguars own 9. Amendola caught the ball at about midfield and would pick up 20-yards, returning the kick down to the Jaguars 30-yard line.
Brady made them pay, hitting James White for 15-yards to get them down to the Jaguars’ 15-yard line, followed by an 8-yard gain by Amendola that took them down the Jaguars’ 7-yard line. Two plays later, Brady connected on what proved to be the game-winning touchdown to the veteran, which put them back on top 24-20 for the first time since the 1st-quarter.
That catch was the most impressive, as Amendola made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone and then managed to somehow get both feet down before twisting his body to make sure he hit the ground with the ball safely in his hands. That lead to an explosion by the fans at Gillette Stadium who with 2:48 left to go knew they were about to witness another Conference Championship.
Brady said after the game he saw the replay on the scoreboard and gave Amendola credit for making yet another big play when they needed it.
“It was great,” said Brady. “He’s made so many big catches, and I saw he got the one foot in and I just saw it up on the big screen one time. He’s got great hands and just a great sense about where he’s at on the field. So, I mean, he’s made so many big plays for us, and this was huge, and without that, we don’t win. It was an incredible play.”
He’s a clutch player and he stepped up in a big way on Sunday. Those are the type of plays they’ll need one more time when the Patriots next take the field in Minnesota. One thing worth noting is the fact Amendola’s set to be a free agent after this season, and hopefully, the Patriots will figure out a way to keep him around because as we were reminded Sunday, his value certainly can’t be understated.
Allen was quietly a difference-maker in the win.
4) Allen was quietly a key component of New England’s success – It’s not often punters end up getting much recognition, but Ryan Allen certainly deserves it after the way he played on Sunday.
The veteran punter played a huge part in the battle of field position, which ultimately is what kept the game close after he forced the Jaguars to start each drive with a long field. Jacksonville never started a drive any farther than their own 33-yard line, and Ryan pinned them back inside their own 20 on three of his 6 punts. That forced the Jaguars to have to try and put together sustained drives on nearly every possession, with New England ultimately being the one who was able to make a few more plays than they did.
Belichick gave Allen a lot of credit, noting how important he was in terms of the role field position played in the win.
“Ryan’s done a good job for us all year. Again, in a game like this – I don’t know how many times we punted – more than we wanted to, but he had a lot of big plays for us,” said Belichick. “I think there was a two-deep look early in the game, which is something they’ve done, but not as much and trying to take us out of some of the directional kicking that we’ve done in the past. Ryan made a good adjustment to that.”
“He had some good punts when we were backed up and we needed the field position and then we had some plus-50 punts in the second half that he executed really well, much like we did in the Jets game a couple of weeks ago, which we were able to maintain the field position that we had, so it was key for us.”
Brady didn’t show any ill-effects of his reported Thumb injury.
5) Despite all the reports, Brady’s thumb proved to be a non-factor – Last week was certainly one of the longest ones for fans who spent most of the week listening to reports and reading more articles about Brady’s throwing hand more than any analysis as it pertained to the actual football game, but it proved to be more noise than anything else.
Brady didn’t wear a glove on his throwing hand Sunday, wearing just a small black wrap on his thumb against the Jaguars but it didn’t seem to hamper him at all. Most of his misfires seemingly had more to do with the pressure the Jaguars were getting on him than anything else, with the veteran quarterback completing 26-of-38 for 290 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon.
He made some tough throws and was on point all afternoon, missing no more than two targets to each of his top receivers in the game. He finished 7-of-9 to Amendola for 84 yards and two touchdowns, as well as 7-of-8 to Dion Lewis for 32 yards, and 6-of-8 to Brandin Cooks for a team-high 100 yards.
“We played a lot better in the second half,” said Brady when asked about how they turned things around. “We just couldn’t get the drives going, and obviously it wasn’t very good on third down and just got into a little tempo stuff in the second half and played a little bit better.”
“So, it was a great win. Happy for our team and just a great, great game. So proud of all the guys, coaches, everyone. Amazing.”
It was an incredible win and a big one for the Patriots, who will now have two weeks to start getting ready for Philadelphia in the Super Bowl after the Eagles blew out the Vikings 38-7 on Sunday.
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