Been there done that. The New England Patriots did not enter unchartered territories when they found themselves down 10 points early in the AFC Championship Game's final quarter. Still, when the Jacksonville Jaguars took a 20-10 lead with 14:52 left in the game it was fair to question whether or not the Patriots – having lost their best offensive skill position player to injury earlier – would be able to come back.
But of course they did. And they made it look oh so familiar because by now it is: Seeing Tom Brady rally the troops in the fourth quarter of a playoff game to stand up to the challenge ahead is nothing new. The Jaguars are just the latest opponent to find out. Like the Atlanta Falcons before them. Or the Seattle Seahawks before them. Or the Baltimore Ravens before them.
Overall, Brady has now led 11 game-winning fourth quarter or overtime drives in the postseason – the most of all time and the same number as Hall of Famers Joe Montana and John Elway combined. He completed comebacks when his team was down by double digits entering the final period in his last two Super Bowl appearances, and against Jacksonville it was not much different – at least partially.
Brady and the Patriots offense did what they do, they came through in the clutch. Together with his most trusted target, wide receiver Danny Amendola, and a defense that rose to the occasion in the second half, New England was able to fight its way back into the game from a 20-10 deficit to a 20-17 deficit to a 24-20 lead. In this regard, the comeback did not look much different than others.
Still, there are some differences to past comebacks as the circumstances were different than in the past. For one, the Patriots were without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who exited the game in the second quarter with a concussion – another blow to an offensive depth chart that was already without some important protagonists from past comeback playoff victories.
Furthermore, New England went up against one of the best defenses in the NFL: No other unit allowed as few points or yards per drive as Jacksonville's, which also ranked in the top four in every important passing category during the regular season from yards to touchdowns given up to interceptions. And despite all that, the Patriots were able to lead two scoring drives behind a quarterback that completed 9 of 14 pass attempts for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
The combination of all that plus the fact that a) Brady played with an injured right hand, and b) Dion Lewis lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter with the score still 20-10 in the Jaguars' favor makes for a unique comeback that differs from past ones like the Super Bowl victories over Atlanta or Seattle – even though that another aspect did not change when compared to either of those: The defense and special teams units played lights out when it had to.
Against the Falcons and Seahawks, New England's defense was able to make big plays to help spark or complete the comeback wins. Against the Jaguars it was the same. Following Lewis' fumble, for example, the unit was able to create a quick three-and-out to set up the first of the touchdown drives in the final period. The unit then gave up only one first down on its next two series as it watched the offense march to the lead.
It was then on the defense again – and once more it delivered to stop a last-gasp 4th and 11 pass from being completed and taking the football away on downs. Being in this position was also made possible by some strong performances in the kicking game: Be it Danny Amendola's 20-yard punt return that set up his go-ahead touchdown or perfect ball placement by Ryan Allen on his fourth punts, the Patriots played perfectly when there was little room for error.
In that case, it is a story told many times before: New England found itself in a “do or die”-situation. The team needed to make plays to save its season and it did just that, whether it was Tom Brady completing yet another of his patented comebacks, the defense pulling out the stops at the right time, or a unheralded special teams unit keeping the field position battle favorable for New England.
It was a familiar script.