A few inches is all it takes. A few inches of separation on one play, a few inches between keeping the feet in bounds or not on another. A few inches are the difference when it comes to a broken up pass or a completion. A few inches can make all the difference in the world on a football field – a field that is a total of 120 yards long and 53.3 yards wide.
During Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New England Patriots needed to fight for every last inch. That fight was embodied by a player that earned his nickname through performances like the one he delivered versus the Jaguars: wide receiver Danny Amendola, who was simply unstoppable at times going against the NFL's best pass defense.
As has been the case multiple times in the past, the veteran stepped up when his team needed him the most. When the lights were brightest and a play needed to be made. Amendola did just that against Jacksonville. And again. And again until he had caught seven passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns. All while also recording a three-yard carry, a 20-yard pass completion and a big punt return.
Amendola's most outstanding work came in the fourth quarter after the Patriots had fallen behind 20-10. He made some big plays before the final period – a fourth down conversion early in the game comes to mind – but was able to elevate his performance to new heights in crunch time: Amendola had nothing less than a fourth quarter for the ages against the Jaguars and played a key role in the Patriots' comeback win.
It all started with the aforementioned pass completion. Yes, the double pass from Tom Brady to Amendola to Dion Lewis ultimately resulted in a fumble and loss of possession, but it was yet another example of the team trusting the wide receiver in a high-pressure situation. And on the next Patriots possession, after the defense had forced a three-and-out, this trust paid off big time.
Facing a 3rd and 18 from their own 25-yard line, the Patriots needed a play to keep their comeback hopes alive with a little over 10 minutes to go. They received it in the form of a 21-yard strike from Brady to Amendola – a pass that could not have been thrown any better and a catch that was equally impressive just a few inches off the ground. The play was one of the game's turning points and the spark the Patriots needed to get going.
“I tried to throw it where he could get it and he made a hell of a catch,” quarterback Tom Brady said after the game about the conversion. “It was an unbelievable catch and big play in the game.” Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels echoed those remarks during a conference call on Monday: “What he does in the most critical situations in the game makes him who he is. That’s a guy that’s dependable, that does whatever the team needs of him.”
Three plays after his 21-yard reception and with the Patriots already in field goal range, Brady hit Amendola again. This time, the play – an equally impressive reception – went for 14 yards to set up a 1st and goal with nine minutes left. And on the very next play, New England was within three courtesy of Danny Amendola: Brady hit his most trusted wide receiver on a simple crossing pattern and Amendola turned up the field and into the end zone for his first touchdown since week 11.
The 32-year old was far from done, and after an exchange of punts was in the spotlight yet again as he found himself on the receiving and of a returnable kick by Jaguars punter Brad Nortman. Amendola fielded the kick at midfield, found an opening to his left and headed up the field for a gain of 20 yards. It was his third-longest return of his season and came at the most opportune time.
“He’s clutch,” noted safety Devin McCourty following the game. “That’s another guy, you don’t worry about being prepared, you don’t worry about having to show up. He’s going to go out there and do whatever it takes whether that is punt returning [or] that is making a tough catch over the middle.” Two plays after doing the former, Amendola did the latter – he made a tough catch over the middle.
Again, it was a play of inches – and again they worked in the Patriots' favor as Brady delivered the football to where only his target could get it. “I’m always looking for him at some point,” said the quarterback following the game “I mean, he’s a big part of what we do, so he’s never not part of what we’re doing.” Three plays later, he was a big part once again.
On a 2nd and goal from the Jaguars 4-yard line and with under three minutes left, Brady found Amendola in the back of the end zone. The future Hall of Famer delivered a perfect pass – high and away from the defender –, trusting his receiver to make a play. Of course, Amendola did. He extended his body to grab the football and immediately tried to get down with both feet in bounds. He did.
“He’s got great hands and just a great sense about where he’s at on the field,” Brady pointed out. “It was an incredible play.” It also was the final moment of an unbelievable quarter for Amendola – a quarter during which he put the team on his back by catching five of Tom Brady's 14 total pass attempts for 56 yards and two scores, all while returning punts and throwing passes.
It was an outstanding performance by Danny Amendola – a player that only needs inches to make magic happen.