FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Neither the stitched right thumb of Tom Brady nor the concussed head of Rob Gronkowski could keep the New England Patriots from heading back to another Super Bowl. That's just the way it is with greatness. It always finds a way to overcome.
On this Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, it was Brady to Danny Amendola over and over and over again that enabled the Patriots to rally from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit and pull out a 24-20 victory over Jacksonville in their seventh straight AFC championship game appearance.
The Patriots are going to their third Super Bowl in four seasons and their eighth since the 2001 season. The last time they had a run of three titles in four years, it culminated with a win over the Eagles down in Jacksonville. Now, the Eagles, who crushed the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, will try to keep history from repeating at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
"It's crazy to think [it could happen again]," Brady said. "It's crazy to think that. This has just all been … I guess it's my life, so I'm living it and it feels all very natural and normal and I feel very much the same as I did when I walked in here 18 years ago. I really do. I could never imagine the kind of team achievements we've had. I didn't think anybody could ever take those for granted. These are pretty amazing times for all of us."
Amendola once spent a training camp with the Eagles in 2009 up at Lehigh University before being cut, but he has long since emerged as a favorite target of Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback. And when Gronkowski went out with a concussion near the end of the second quarter, it became clear that Brady was going to lean heavily on his 32-year-old slot receiver. Amendola finished the game with seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter.
He also set up his own game-winning touchdown with a 20-yard punt return that placed the ball at the Jacksonville 30 with just under five minutes remaining.
"You look up football player in the dictionary and there's a picture of [Amendola]," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
With the Patriots down by 10 points early in the final quarter, Brady found Amendola for a 21-yard reception on a third-and-18 play from New England's own 25-yard line. That kept a critical drive alive and before it was over Amendola had two more catches, including including a 9-yard touchdown that cut Jacksonville's lead to 20-17. Brady and Amendola also hooked up twice on the Patriots' game-winning drive, with the go-ahead score coming on a 4-yard pass to the 5-foot-11 receiver in the back of the end zone.
Somehow Amendola managed to keep his feet in bounds on the play.
"He has made so many big catches for us," Brady said. "I saw he got the one foot in and I just saw it up on the big screen the one time and he has such great hands. It was just huge. Without that, we don't win. I'm always looking for him at some point. He's a big part of what we do. He is never not a part of it. He's a huge part of it."
All the drama leading up to the game was about Brady's right hand, which had been cut open and later stitched after Wednesday's practice. Brady wore a glove on the hand at a Friday news conference and declined to answer any questions about the severity of the injury. We quickly learned that all the drama was much ado about nothing.
Brady, who played with a wrap, completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and the two touchdowns to Amendola. He said once the stitches are taken out this week that he did not think the hand would be a problem during the Super Bowl game in Minneapolis. Belichick significantly downplayed the injury.
"Look, Tom did a great job and he's a tough guy, but we're not talking about open-heart surgery," Belichick said.
Brady led the Patriots on a 62-yard drive to open the game, which culminated with a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostokowski that gave New England a 3-0 lead. All he did was complete all six of his passes for 57 yards. It was obvious he was fine, but before the half was over he would have some serious issues with the Jacksonville defense.
The Jaguars sacked him twice and allowed just two first downs on New England's next three series while Jacksonville built a 14-3 lead behind a white-hot Blake Bortles and the power running of rookie Leonard Fournette. Bortles completed 13 of 15 passes in the opening half, including a 4-yard touchdown to veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis that gave Jacksonville a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. Bortles went 9-for-9 for 112 yards on Jacksonville's two touchdown drives, the second of which ended with a 4-yard run by Fournette, who carried 11 times for 40 yards in the opening half.
With the Jags up, 14-3, a modest sign — Not Done — was held high inside Gillette Stadium. That last Super Bowl is fresh enough in our memories that America did not a need a reminder, but just in case folks did Brady took the Pats on an 85-yard touchdown drive in just 67 seconds right before the half.
Right after the two-minute warning, Brady connected on three straight passes that covered 23 yards before looking for his favorite target, Gronkowski, deep down the field. The Pats did not get a completion, but they did get a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on safety Barry Church that pushed the ball into Jacksonville territory.
Still, it was a costly exchange for the Patriots because Gronkowski left with a head injury and never returned. After a 32-yard pass interference penalty against cornerback A.J. Bouye, Brady connected with Brandin Cooks for a 12-yard completion that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by James White.
Just like that the Patriots were within four and Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone decided to take that slim lead into the locker room rather than risk a turnover by going for more points with 55 seconds and two timeouts left at the end of the first half.
The Jags pushed their lead back to seven with a 54-yard field goal from Josh Lambo on their first possession of the second half and withstood some terrible field position during most of the third quarter before going up by 10 points on a 43-yard field goal from Lambo on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Up went the sign: Not Done.