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How Danny Amendola became a second-half catalyst for Patriots

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Through two quarters in Houston, Danny Amendola had one catch for 13 yards on three targets.

Danny Amendola had two catches for 12 yards through the New England Patriots’ first two playoff games.

Prior to then, 31-year-old slot receiver, who missed the final four games of the regular season with a high-ankle sprain, hadn’t caught a pass in nearly two months.

Production-wise, that would reflect Amendola’s quietest campaign since 2011, when he landed on the St. Louis Rams’ injured reserve after only one appearance and five receptions for 45 yards. But while Amendola had gone all of 2016 without catching five passes in a game, or amassing more than 48 receiving yards in one, he still seemed to have a knack for the moment.

Even if those moments transpired while playing only 23 percent of the offense’s snaps.

Amendola moved the chains on 14 of his 23 receptions during the regular season. He turned 12 third-down passes into either first downs or touchdowns. He caught all eight red-zone throws sent his way. He set a career-high with four touchdowns. He didn’t record a drop.

That was all well and good. It was efficient given the sample size. But if you foresaw The Woodlands native and Texas Tech product having the homecoming he did Sunday in Houston, you also probably foresaw the Patriots coming back from a 25-point deficit to win Super Bowl LI.

Those two events weren’t mutually exclusive.

Amendola was targeted three times by Tom Brady in the first half against a young, sudden and swarming Atlanta Falcons defense. The results were a 13-yard grab on an angle route in the first quarter, followed by an incompletion, and then an interception returned for an 82-yard touchdown by cornerback Robert Alford in the second quarter.

AMENDOLA BEFORE HALFTIME

First quarter, 9:56: 0-0, second-and-8 – 13 yards on angle route

Second quarter, 8:07: 14-0, second-and-10 – Incomplete

Second quarter, 2:36: 14-0, third-and-3 – Intercepted

The Patriots found themselves standing in a 21-3 hole at halftime. But Amendola would find himself targeted more frequently in the second half.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder’s first look after intermission would result in a two-yard loss on a quick screen. And while New England would be down by a score of 28-3 by the time No. 80 saw another pass shipped into his vicinity, it needed to be dire to be a turning point.

It doesn’t get much more dire than fourth down from your own 46 with more than six minutes left in the third quarter. Just a play after your offensive coordinator calls for a double-pass to no avail, where do you go from there? Where do you attack a defense now expecting a bag of tricks to be emptied on the counter?

Amendola, for one, went in motion opposite corner Brian Poole.

Gaining leverage with his inside shoulder, Amendola sunk his hips, and turned his back to the coverage for the reception up the sideline. Swiveling through a broken tackle, a first down and a 17-yard gain would be the byproduct.

New England’s first touchdown of the game would be netted soon after courtesy of running back James White.

Still, the Patriots embarked on the fourth quarter with a 28-9 score staring down at them. The missed extra point and failed onsides kick didn’t lighten that workload. Amendola, however, accounted for a significant share of the lifting that followed.

Including six.

Only 36 seconds removed from collecting eight yards on a quick-out pattern, Amendola got another glance from Brady down in the red zone with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. The score read 28-12 at that time, and the down and distance read second-and-3.

The Patriots went five-wide to combat it. Amendola, in turn, gathered himself inside the numbers with rookie split-end Malcolm Mitchell flanking him to the left. He’d be running a quick-out into the flat once again, though this time, Amendola would have his teammate shielding outside coverage.

It’d be a matter of beating second-round pick Jalen Collins to the blind spot.

With a free release off the line and the Falcons protecting the underneath, that came to fruition.

Amendola’s touchdown and White’s subsequent two-point conversion saw the Patriots cut the Falcons’ lead to eight. It would be vice versa the next time the offense got into the end zone and knotted the game at 28 with 57 seconds to go in regulation.

Amendola made two more pivotal plays in the process of that swing.

Just before the two-minute warning, he met Poole at the line on first-and-10. A dig route deep over the middle would be in the cards during that encounter, and it’d pose assignment problems between the hashes where 21-year-old strong safety Keanu Neal roamed.

Amendola would nod his head. He’d accelerate as he sold the cross under Poole and over Neal, who’d kept an eye on the quarterback’s eyes. And with Julian Edelman running a fly down the right sideline and fellow Falcons safety Ricardo Allen playing deep middle, there was real estate.

Amendola extended to get 20 yards worth. That brought New England to the Atlanta 21.

White’s second TD would make it 28-26 before Amendola returned to the forefront through a tunnel screen. His value as a horizontal, mesh threat in a spread-out attack wasn’t lost on Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick or Brady. They kept going back to him.

In a sense, Amendola proved to be the type of gnat-like receiver the Falcons were most vulnerable to. He slipped through the screen windows and pestered coverage with the short-to-intermediate plays in a game that the Patriots’ offense could have very well tried to force vertically.

"We just wanted to focus on our job; one play at a time, one drive at a time,” Amendola told reporters late Sunday night. “Interrupt the scoreboard, just try to get the ball in the end zone and make plays."

Those steady, short-to-intermediate plays added up to be more explosive than one big one. The Patriots weren’t tailored to beat the Falcons the latter way.

Not when down 21 or 25, or even 16 or eight.

AMENDOLA AFTER HALFTIME

Third quarter, 13:02: 21-3, second-and-10 – Two-yard loss on quick screen

Third quarter, 6:04: 28-3, fourth-and-3 – 17 yards on comeback

Third quarter, 5:35: 28-3, first-and-10 – Two yards on quick-out

Fourth quarter, 12:24: 28-9, first-and-10 – Incomplete

Fourth quarter, 6:34: 28-12, first-and-10 – Eight yards on quick-out

Fourth quarter, 6:00: 28-12, second-and-3 – Six-yard touchdown on quick-out

Fourth quarter, 2:03: 28-20, first-and-10 – 20 yards on dig route

Fourth quarter, 0:57: 28-26, two-point attempt – Converted on tunnel screen

Overtime, 14:26: 28-28, second-and-4 – 14 yards on out route

Amendola finished his Super Bowl off with a 14-yard gain on an out route in overtime. By then, he’d caught eight passes – his highest output since Nov. 23, 2015. And by then, he’d amassed 78 yards – more than his previous six games combined.

But it wasn’t about the production so much as it was about the situations.

On the biggest stage, Amendola did his part to put the Patriots in a winning one.