FOXBORO, Mass. (WPRI) — It took some late-game heroics from Tom Brady and Danny Amendola, but the New England Patriots beat the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday to win the AFC Championship and punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots will play the Philadelphia Eagles, who were crowned NFC champions with a commanding 38-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night.
Blake Bortles and the Jaguars were in the driver’s seat for most of Sunday’s AFC title game, going into the fourth quarter with a 20-10 lead and secure in the knowledge that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski would not be taking the field to stage a comeback.
But Brady and Amendola had other ideas: Amendola caught a touchdown pass with 8:44 left in the game, set up by a successful flea-flicker to Phillip Dorsett. The Jaguars punted away on their next possession and Amendola returned it to the Jacksonville 30-yard line with a hair under five minutes left. With 2:48 left in the game he made a leaping, acrobatic catch to put the Patriots up 23-20.
In the first three quarters, Jacksonville’s physical, stifling defense kept the Patriots in check. They played tough, sacking Brady three times, while the offense racked up 22 first downs and dominated the possession game. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette steadily bled the New England defense, tallying 76 rushing yards and a touchdown while proving almost impossible to bring down. Bortles looked more Brady-like than Brady for most of the game, throwing for 293 yards and a touchdown while at one point completing 12 straight passes.
The Patriots drew first blood on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal but were unable to put a solid offensive drive together until late in the first half, when they benefited from a pair of big penalties on the Jaguars defense, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown run from James White.
One of those penalties was an unsporstmanlike conduct flag for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Gronkowski from Jacksonville safety Barry Church that sent the tight end to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion. The Patriots announced at the start of the fourth quarter that Gronkowski would not return. The Jaguars were flagged five times for 62 yards in the first half.
New England turned the tables in the fourth quarter, with the Brady-Amendola show bringing the Patriots surging back to take the lead. Brady ended the game with 290 yards and two touchdowns to Amendola, while the Patriots running backs were held largely silent for most of the game. Brandin Cooks caught six balls for 100 yards, despite what could have been a momentum-killing drop late in the game.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore broke up a deep ball from Bortles just inside the two-minute warning, which was Jacksonville’s last, best shot to regain the lead. The Patriots took over on downs and ran out the clock for the win.
Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone and his team prepared all week to face the reigning Super Bowl MVP, despite him being listed as questionable in the Patriots’ injury report. After hurting his right hand during practice Wednesday, Brady sat out practice Thursday and was a limited participant on Friday.
In speaking to the media Friday, Brady did little to ease fans’ concerns about whether or not he’d take the field Sunday. When asked this directly, he merely said, “We’ll see.” Wearing gloves on both hands at the podium, Brady flat-out refused to discuss his injury.
But one hour before game time, the Patriots published their list of inactive players – and Brady wasn’t on it.
The Patriots, playing in their seventh straight AFC title game, were 7.5-point favorites in the contest. That’s down from a 9-point spread earlier in the week, before news of Brady’s hand circulated.
New England took on a “Sacksonville” defense that ranked second in the league in points per game allowed (16.8), total points allowed (268) and yards per game (286.1). They ranked behind only the Minnesota Vikings.
Jaguars DE Calais Campbell led the AFC in sacks this season with 14.5 and his counterpart Yannick Ngakoue wasn’t far behind with 12.
But Brady leads one of the NFL’s most high-powered passing offenses this season and led the league in passing yards (4,577) while racking up 32 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
Strangely enough, he averaged 286.1 yards per game through the air which, as you may have noticed, was exactly the same as the Jacksonville defense’s total YPG average.
Eyewitness News anchor Patrick Little was at Gillette before today’s big game.
The last time these two teams met, the Patriots cruised to a 51-17 victory in Week 3 of the 2015 season.
The Jaguars have never won a conference championship, this being only their third appearance since entering the league as an expansion team in 1995. They managed to make the AFC title game in only their second season but lost to the Patriots by a score of 20-6. Three years later, they fell to the Tennessee Titans 33-14.
Former Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe, whose own injury early in the 2001 season resulted in Brady’s rise to prominence, was named the team’s honorary captain for Sunday’s game.
Yianni Kourakis and Ruthie Polinsky were live at Gillette early this afternoon:
Patriots radio play-by-play announcer Bob Socci from 98.5 The Sports Hub sat down with Yianni about two hours before game time: