When Josh Lambo's 43-yard field goal split the uprights four seconds into the AFC Championship Game's fourth quarter, the New England Patriots suddenly found themselves behind 20-10 against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, the defending world champions still had plenty of time to do what they have done numerous times in the past: come back from a big deficit to win in the playoffs.
This time, however, the deck appeared to be stacked against New England: Not only did the Patriots lose tight end Rob Gronkowski to a concussion in the second quarter, they also turned the football over just three plays after Lambo's field goal. But if the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era has taught us one thing it is to never count out the team from performing in crunch time – which is exactly what happened.
New England made plays in all three phases of the game to secure a 24-20 win and berth in Super Bowl LII. Let's take a closer look at six plays that made the comeback victory possible:
1) 3-8-JAX 35 (13:00) (Shotgun) B.Bortles pass short left to A.Hurns to JAX 42 for 7 yards (D.McCourty, E.Rowe)
Following the above-mentioned giveaway, the Patriots were in dire need of a defensive stop to get the football back. After a short run and an incomplete pass they were in a position for just that: Jacksonville found itself in a 3rd and 8 at its own 35-yard line. The Jaguars approached the down in an 11-personnel 3x1 set that saw quarterback Blake Bortles (#5) align in the shotgun.
New England's defense countered with a dime package – three down-linemen, two linebackers, six defensive backs – showing a 2-man coverage look: The safeties aligned 10-15 yards deep with man-to-man coverage in front of them:
The initial look was deceiving, though, as the Patriots opted to move players around once the play started. At the snap, cornerback Malcolm Butler (#21) blitzed from the offensive left-side slot to add to the three-man pressure New England brought with its down-linemen. The blitz was diagnosed well by the Jaguars, who it picked up with running back T.J. Yeldon (#24) and opted to pass to the player who was originally covered by Butler, wide receiver Allen Hurns (#88).
With Butler vacating his pre-snap assignment, the Patriots needed to move free safety Devin McCourty (#32) down to provide coverage of Hurns. McCourty, who unlike Butler did not flinch before the football was snapped, started sprinting towards the wide receiver immediately once he and fellow wideout Marquise Lee (#11) went on their wheel/slant combination:
Right after the snap, Bortles started looking to his left: While Lee was covered tightly by boundary cornerback Eric Rowe (#25), Hurns was – as expected – open on the wheel route, which prompted his quarterback to deliver a quick pass. McCourty read and reacted perfectly to the play, however, and was able to wrap-up tackle the receiver one yard short of a first down.
New England's defense forcing a three-and-out on the first drive after the turnover was big for the Patriots. Not only did the team get the football back with 12 minutes left in the game, it also shifted momentum back to New England.
2) 3-18-NE 25 (10:49) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep middle to D.Amendola to NE 46 for 21 yards (T.Gipson).
Following Jacksonville's punt, the Patriots started their next possession with an 18-yard pass play to wide receiver Brandin Cooks. However, the next two plays – a sack and a incompletion – put the drive on the brink of stalling and New England in a 3rd and 18 situation. The Patriots played the down in an 11-personnel package, aligned in a 2x2 shotgun formation with running back James White (#28) off-set to Tom Brady's (#12) left:
Jacksonville countered by playing a cover 4 zone defense designed to prevent the deep completion. Brady knows that one of the keys to beating the coverage lies in the area between the linebackers underneath and the safeties over the top – exactly the spot wide receiver Danny Amendola (#80), originally aligning in the left-side slot, was targeting on his post route.
Once the football was snapped, Brady's eyes immediately went to his right and away from Amendola. This caused Jaguars safety Barry Church (#42) to slide further towards the boundary and create an opening between himself and fellow safety Tashaun Gipson (#39). Once the quarterback saw that his manipulation had worked, his eyes immediately went back to his intended target.
Moving the safety primarily worked because of the quarterback's mastery at manipulating the defense. However, the protection up front also played an important part as it gave Brady enough time to look off the defender. New England's offensive line was able to stifle the Jaguars' four-man rush and showed tremendous technique and chemistry in the process of stopping Jacksonville's double-stunt:
After a quick re-set of his feet, Brady delivered a perfect pass to where only Amendola could catch it. New England gained 21 yards on the play and quickly found itself near midfield with a new set of downs available. It would not take long for the Patriots to move even further towards the Jacksonville red zone.
3) 1-10-NE 46 (10:19) (No Huddle) T.Brady pass deep left to P.Dorsett to JAX 23 for 31 yards (M.Jack).
The very next play after the third down conversion to Amendola saw the Patriots gain 31 yards on a little trickery – tied for the home team's longest play of the day at the most opportune moment. Before the snap, Tom Brady (#12) aligned under center with a six-man line in front of him and running back James White (#28) behind him; the receivers were in a slot formation to the left with Phillip Dorsett (#13) the lone wideout on the right:
Jacksonville used a cover 3 zone to defend the play that started with Brady handing off the football to White. This caused both the linebackers and cornerbacks to not drop back deeper to provide coverage but instead kept them closer to the pocket – exactly what New England wanted to accomplish as it opened up space to exploit on the flea flicker pass that followed and basically created a 3-vs-3 matchup in the secondary:
What also helped was the Patriots selling the run perfectly: The wide receivers slowly started to go on their routes, with Dorsett even chipping safety Barry Church (#42), while the offensive line faked a forward push as if a run was called. However, the unit could not actually advance further down the field as it may have resulted in a penalty for ineligible man downfield. The unit did not have to worry about it, though, as it played the fake perfectly.
Even after White tossed the football back to Brady, the blocking up front stayed intact. This gave the quarterback plenty of time to go through his progressions. He started by looking towards Danny Amendola (#80) running a crossing route from the left-side slot. However, the player originally in coverage of Dorsett, Jalen Ramsey (#20) was in a position to potentially make a play had the ball been thrown that way.
Instead, Brady opted to look to his left where Dorsett had shaken free on his own crosser. With linebacker Myles Jack (#44) the nearest defender, Brady liked his chances and delivered a perfectly placed football for a gain of 31 yards:
In just two plays, the Patriots were able to gain more than 50 yards to find themselves at the Jacksonville 23-yard line. Three plays later, Brady hit Amendola for a 9-yard touchdown out to bring his team within three of the Jaguars with almost nine minutes still left on the game clock.
4) 4-11-JAX 9 (5:10) B.Nortman punts 41 yards to 50, Center-C.Holba. D.Amendola to JAX 30 for 20 yards (D.Smoot).
Following New England's touchdown, the two teams exchanged punts on short drives. With the Jaguars again failing to gain any significant ground on their subsequent possession, it was time for the team to punt again. As usual, Danny Amendola (#80) was waiting on the receiving end. With Jacksonville punting from its own 9-yard line, the veteran was starting at around the Patriots' 45.
At the snap, the Patriots rushed six players, using three jammers on the Jaguars' outside gunners and Matthew Slater (#18) in the middle of the field:
Once the football was kicked and sailed towards New England's left side, Amendola started to move forward. Simultaneously, Slater also moved to his left to help Johnson Bademosi (#29) take on gunner Corey Grant (#30). The two blockers were able to keep Grant at check and roughly seven yards away from Amendola when he fielded the punt after not having called for a fair catch.
Once the football was in his hands, the returner started heading up the field towards the left sideline. The area was open after both players responsible for it, James O'Shaughnessy (#80) and Donald Payne (#52), were pushed to the ground during blocking for punter Brad Nortman (#3). With the two players needing to get up after the kick, Amendola found open space in front of him:
Amendola was able to outrun the first tackle attempt and, following a block from Jordan Richards (#37) on personal protector Tommy Bohanon (#40), gain additional ground all the way to the Jaguars 30-yard line. With five minutes left, three timeouts still in the pocked and down three points, the Patriots suddenly were in prime position to take the lead or at least tie the game.
5) 2-4-JAX 4 (2:56) T.Brady pass short left to D.Amendola for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Five plays after his 20-yard punt return, Amendola found himself in the spotlight again. At that point, the Patriots had already advanced to the Jaguars 4-yard line and were in a 2nd and goal situation. New England used an 11-personnel group to approach the down: a six-man line in front of Tom Brady (#12), two receivers in a slot formation to his right, James White (#28) in the backfield and Brandin Cooks (#14) split out one-on-one to the left:
Jacksonville, due to the short field, played man-to-man coverage on the outside and zone in the middle of the field with one safety over the top. This safety, Tashaun Gipson (#39), read Brady's eyes from the moment it became clear that the hand-off to White was nothing but a fake. This, however, made him lose track of the player who would ultimately score the game winning touchdown, Danny Amendola (#80).
Amendola started the play in the left side slot. At the snap, the veteran ran straight up the field through the zone occupied by cornerback Aaron Colvin (#22) and made an in-cut once he had gotten behind linebacker Paul Posluszny (#51). And with Gipson moving forward as a result of him readying Brady, Amendola was also able to get behind the safety – and open.
Brady, however, did not look towards the veteran early on. Instead, he was focused on Brandin Cooks, who ran an in-and-out versus cornerback Jalen Ramsey (#20) – the same route on which Julian Edelman scored the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. While Cooks ultimately was able to create an opening, it took to long for Brady's liking and he began looking elsewhere: to Amendola.
Once the quarterback saw the wide receiver open near the back-line of the end zone, he quickly fired a bullet high and away from Gipson to where only Amendola could catch the football. The wide receiver made the leaping catch and displayed tremendous body control to get both feet down in bounds – a fitting way to end an outstanding quarter of football for the veteran:
Amendola's second touchdown reception of the day helped the Patriots take a 24-20 lead – one that the team would hold until the end after the defense came through once again and New England's offense was able to run out the clock afterwards. And while it certainly was not the way the team drew it up before the game, it showed that the Patriots are a mentally tough bunch that can never be counted out.
And because of all that, they will have a chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 4th.