By Adesina O. Koiki
FOXBORO, Mass. – The Jacksonville Jaguars now will have the offseason to think about what they could have done differently in the final 15 minutes of the game that eventually cost them a date with history.
New England quarterback Tom Brady threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to Danny Amendola, the latter coming with 2:48 left in the game, as the Patriots came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Jaguars 24-20 in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, propelling New England to its NFL-record 10th Super Bowl appearance.
Jacksonville, looking for its first ever Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, was poised to do so when it held a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but its offense went stagnant in the final stanza while New England moved the ball at will against the normally staunch Jaguars’ defense.
The Jaguars are now 0-3 all-time in conference championship games.
“I think it is hard when you come in right from the field and you come in here,” said Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone after the game. “I think if you think about it and the more I think about it the more it will hurt. The more it will weigh on my mind about what we could have done better. Everyone in that locker room is thinking what could we have done a better job of including me. So it is tough.”
What makes this game even tougher to swallow is that, for 45 minutes, Jacksonville did almost everything right in trying to pull off a near-impossible upset: They possessed the ball for almost 30 minutes in the first three quarters, taking the game out of Brady’s hands; Blake Bortles was efficient once again, going 13-for-15 in the first half with a touchdown pass as he led the Jaguars to two touchdown drives on consecutive possessions in the second quarter; and lastly, Jacksonville’s defense continually created pressure on Brady, sacking him a total of three times and getting hits on him on many other occasions as he released the ball.
“I mean, guys were upset,” said Bortles. “It was not what everybody expected outside of the country and popular belief. That room fully expected to win this game and I think everybody is shocked, disappointed and upset – whatever you want to call it.”
The fourth quarter proved to be Jacksonville’s undoing, though it started very auspiciously. Josh Lambo kicked his second field goal of the game, a 43-yarder, on the second play of the quarter to give Jacksonville a 20-10 lead. On the ensuing drive, linebacker Myles Jack made a stellar play to force a turnover, chasing down the Patriots’ running back Dion Lewis on a long pass play – a pass thrown by Amendola on a trick play – before stripping the ball and recovering it in one motion at the Jacksonville 33-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Jaguars, Jack, who got up from off the ground after his strip and recovery to return the fumble, was ruled down by contact, despite replays showing he was not touched down by a Patriots player while on the ground after the recovery.
What could have been a touchdown return and a 27-10 became the beginning of the end for Jacksonville.
After the Jaguars went three-and-out, the Patriots marched down the field 85 yards, including converting a 3rd-and-18 on a 21-yard completion from Brady to Amendola. That combination hooked up on a 9-yard touchdown to end the drive to cut the Jaguars’ lead to 20-17 with 8:44 left.
Two possessions later, the Patriots took the lead, with the game-winning drive sparked by a 20-yard punt return by Amendola to give New England the ball at the Jacksonville 30-yard line. Five plays later, Brady fired a pass in the back of the end zone that Amendola caught and was able to keep his feet inbounds while falling to the turf to give New England its first lead since the start of the second quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Brady was 9-of-14 for 138 yards and those two touchdowns to Amendola. Also, those numbers came while without the services of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a concussion in the second quarter and was ruled out for the rest of the game.
“[Brady] is a good player,” said Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson. “If you give him time, he will pick you apart. He is the greatest quarterback to ever play this game. You can never have a safe lead with 12 at the helm.”
Jacksonville, after falling behind 3-0 to end the first, mounted two consecutive touchdown drives to silence the Gillette Stadium crowd. On the second play of the second quarter, Bortles found tight end Marcedes Lewis in the end zone on a pass from four yards out to give the Jaguars a 7-3 lead.
On their next drive, Bortles completed all four of his passes for 47 yards and running back Leonard Fournette capped it off with a four-yard touchdown run for a 14-3 lead.
New England scored just a minute before halftime, as running back James White scored from a yard out to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 14-10 at the intermission.
As disappointing of an end to the season the Jaguars suffered on Sunday, veterans on the squad are hoping that this season’s magical ride to the conference title game is just a sign of bigger things to come.
“I told the guys to keep their head up and use this as fuel,” said Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell. “We are definitely going to have a lot of respect going into next year, and it’s going to be a little harder. We just have to use this as motivation to prepare for it and be prepared for next year.”