Here we are again, for the third time in four years. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
The Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl. They battled through a testing playoff game at home on Sunday (one in which they didn’t play particular well … at least not until the end), got knocked on their butts a handful of times, looked completely lost and confused, like they were all just playing together on the same field for the first time. But they never threw in the towel, they rallied behind Tom Brady as they always do, and they just barely snagged victory out from under the feet of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It was a truly entertaining AFC Championship game, one that I fully intend to watch a couple more times (thanks to the amazing powers of DVR) during the next two weeks leading up to Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis. Blake Bortles and the Jaguars came to play, and they competed about as hard as you could’ve asked. They had the Pats backed up against the wall for basically the entire game. Believe me, it was a stressful 60 minutes.
I watched the game at my apartment, on my couch, just as I usually do. I broke out my red, white and blue Brady throwback jersey for the occasion. And here’s a quick story about that: for last week’s divisional round game against the Titans, I wore my blue Gronkowski jersey. In the Gronk jersey, the Pats ramrodded Tennessee and cruised to a lopsided 35-14 victory. In the throwback Brady jersey, the Pats barely survived the Jags, winning 24-20, and Gronk left the game with a concussion. So you can guess which jersey will be worn during Super Bowl 52 on Feb. 4.
It didn’t take long for me to start regretting my choice of jersey for the AFC Championship game. After Bortles completed a four-yard touchdown pass to Mercedes Lewis, followed by Leonard Fournette’s four-yard touchdown run to put the Jaguars up 14-3 halfway through the second quarter, I felt like I had made a terrible mistake. But I can never bring myself to change jerseys during a game. I feel like choosing your game day jersey is like choosing your favorite team. Once you choose it, you’re stuck with it until the end.
So I kept the Brady throwback on. And then when Gronkowski was involved in a head-on collision with Jags safety Barry Church late in the first half, which caused Gronk to leave the game with a concussion and probably forget the last five years of his life, I was really, really, REALLY regretting it. I felt like Sam Winchester after he unintentionally released Lucifer from his cage. I caused this, didn’t I? I doomed us all!
Of course, I didn’t actually cause it. My jersey choice had nothing do with anything that was happening in the football game. I just wanted to make excuses and find something to put the blame on. However, I felt a little better shortly after. Brady found Brandin Cooks for 12 yards, then James White rushed one yard into the end zone to bring the Pats back into the game.
Halftime score: Jaguars 14, Patriots 10. Well, I guess being down four is better than being down 11, right?
As a fan, it was time for me to regroup. The Pats played a really bad first half. They were getting kicked around in an AFC Championship by the Jacksonville Jaguars of all teams. Blake Bleeping Bortles was outperforming Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium in an AFC Championship game. I had to collect all of my thoughts, and try to keep calm. The Jags would be receiving the second half kickoff, but if the New England defense could somehow get a stop (something that had been hard to come by so far), the Patriots would then be in perfect position to regain their composure, take back the lead and put this Jacksonville team away for good. Sounded easy, right?
Of course not. After all, this is sports. Why would it be easy? New England was kept off the scoreboard for the entire third quarter, while the Jaguars tacked on two more field goals. Heading into the fourth quarter, it was 20-10 Jacksonville. Once again, my thoughts were all over the place.
I was wondering: how can the Patriots play exceptionally bad for three quarters at home in the AFC Championship game, and be trailing by 10 points against a Cinderella team that is probably extremely fortunate to even still be playing? Maybe the 2017 Jaguars really were for real. They had been lauded for their ferocious defense for weeks. Now all that defense had to do was hold a 10-point lead for 15 minutes, and they would be heading to the Super Bowl.
At this point, the Queen came over to the couch and sat down for a few minutes. She had been wandering all around the apartment doing random chores, and doing her best to ignore the football game as much as possible (she hates football). But for a brief second, she looked up at the TV and saw the score.
Her: “The winner of this game goes to the Super Bowl, right?”
Her: “Wow, this is intense.”
Me (the nerves clearly showing in my face): “Yeah, just a little bit.”
And then I started babbling to her about what had happened in the game so far, thinking this might be the one and only time I get to share my football emotions with her. I mentioned a play from the third quarter when the Pats were trailing 17-10, in which Brady tried to throw deep to Brandin Cooks but the ball bounced off Cooks’ fingertips, and how every Patriots fan in the world was praying that wouldn’t end up being the play that defined the entire game.
Her response: “Does Brandin Cooks like to cook?”
She had already lost interest, but at least she gave me a brief laugh as I readied myself for what was sure to be an agonizingly stressful fourth quarter. Before she got up to leave the couch, I mentioned to her that the only reason I hadn’t given up hope on this game was because the Pats still had Tom Brady. When your quarterback is Tom Brady, you ALWAYS have a chance, whether the deficit be 20-10 or 28-3.
(Sorry, Atlanta. I had to.)
Naturally, that last remaining hope was nearly dashed for good when the Pats almost pulled off a masterful trick play – Brady with a backwards pass to Danny Amendola, then Amendola with the forward pass to Dion Lewis for a first down – only to have the ball get ripped out of Lewis’s hands, while my heart was ripped out of my chest simultaneously, and immediately into the hands of Jacksonville’s Myles Jack. Just one of those absolutely soul-crushing turn of events.
I might have started crying right then and there if it hadn’t been for the New England defense forcing an extremely quick three-and-out, followed by Brady hurling the ball 21 yards to Amendola for a season-saving third and 18 conversion (undoubtedly the most pivotal play of the game for the Patriots), and then followed by Brady eventually finding Amendola in the end zone. TOUCHDOWN, PATRIOTS!
The Pats had quickly recovered from that backbreaking fumble, and were now only down by three points with over eight minutes to go. I think we all knew at this point that Brady was winning this game. He had the Jags right where he wanted them. And after one more drive attempt that resulted in a Ryan Allen punt, the Patriots finally pieced together the game-winning drive, capped off with another touchdown pass from Brady to Amendola (the game’s MVP by far) to finally regain the lead, 24-20.
Bortles had one more chance, but despite how well he had played in the game, would you really like his chances of leading a game-winning drive in a playoff game, on the road at Gillette Stadium, in front of a raucous New England crowd? When it comes down to it, the answer is no. On fourth and 15, Stephon Gilmore swatted away Jacksonville’s last hope. When the Pats got the ball back, Dion Lewis redeemed his earlier fumble by bursting for a first down that finally clinched the victory.
And so that was that. Despite playing like a shell of themselves for three quarters, the Patriots prevailed yet again. The Jaguars showed up in Foxboro ready to compete, and they may very well have won the game, but they hurt themselves badly late in the first half with a couple of extremely costly penalties, they froze offensively in the fourth quarter when they really needed to put up just a few more points, and ultimately, they crumbled under the pressure of the situation, and the Patriots took advantage of those mistakes.
That’s why the New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl for the second straight year, for the third time in four years, for the eighth time since 2001, and for the 10th time in franchise history – an NFL record. They’ll be meeting the Philadelphia Eagles – the team they beat 13 years ago in Super Bowl 39 – who won the NFC Championship game by unleashing a stunning beat down on the Vikings, 38-7.
A showdown between Tom Brady and Nick Foles in Super Bowl 52? Who would’ve ever predicted that?
Hell of a season. See you in Minneapolis.