FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The Jacksonville Jaguars were on a mission to reach a franchise-first Super Bowl appearance.
The only thing standing in their way was Tom Brady and a Patriots team playing in their seventh straight AFC Championship game. Despite a hand injury with 10 stitches, Brady threw 4 touchdown passes rallying a 24-20 comeback victory.
"I've had a lot worse," Brady said. "I didn't know that on Wednesday. It was a crazy injury. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday was a little scary. Then I started getting some confidence and today we did just enough to win."
The New England Patriots came out on their opening drive and looked like business as usual. Brady and the Patriots offense capped off a nine-play, 66-yard drive with a 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
Jacksonville looked balanced but aggressive on their opening drive. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was able to connect on a couple of third-down conversions and Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette looked like he was running with authority. Unfortunately, two off-the-mark passes from Bortles stalled the drive and they were forced to punt.
As the first quarter came to a close, the Jaguars put together a balanced drive with Fournette establishing his will with power runs between the tackles and spot-on play-action passes from Bortles.
A 24-yard catch by Corey Grant set the Jaguars up a first and goal on the Patriots 4-yard line. The Jaguars took their first lead of the day on the following play with a Bortles fade to tight end Marcedes Lewis.
On the ensuing drive, the Jaguars’ defense was able to put pressure on Brady and held the Patriots to a three-and-out.
In the second quarter, Fournette put his foot in the ground and started imposing his will. The Jags systematically drove 77 yards on 10 plays and took a 14-3 lead on a Fournette 4-yard touchdown run up the gut. Every player on the Patriots sideline knew what was coming and couldn’t stop it.
And Foxborough went silent.
Sacksonville reared its vicious head in the second quarter, causing Brady to rush through his progressions, and forced a punt after Jaguars defensive end Donte Fowler Jr.’s second sack.
The Jaguars started to put together another decent drive approaching the two-minute warning, but a Bortles delay of game and rookie offensive linemen Cam Robinson holding penalties stifled it and they were forced to punt.
With 55 seconds left in the first half, the Patriots scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by running back James White after they were gifted half the field on penalties. Barry Church was flagged for a personal foul on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and A.J. Bouye was called for pass interference defending Patriots wide receiver Brandon Cooks.
"It was a tough call," Church said, "but you've got to go with what they call."
Gronk came up slow on Church’s hit and was walked to the locker room by the Patriots training staff. He would remain inactive for the rest of the game with a concussion.
The Jaguars opened up the second half with a nine-play, 39-yard drive that set up a 54-yard Josh Lambo field goal. Bortles started the drive with a couple of solid passes but nearly threw an interception on a pass attempt to wide receiver Marquis Lee.
The Patriots took the field in the second half without their star tight end, who was still posted up in the locker room under the concussion protocol. Brady put together a couple of passes and crossed midfield but was forced to punt after a failed third-down conversion and pinned the Jags back inside their own 10-yard line.
Gillette Stadium came back to life after the Patriots’ defense put pressure on Bortles, forcing an errant throw and a sack on the Jaguars’ 5-yard line.
Unlike the first half, the second half started as a battle for field position.
The Jags started their third possession of the second half inside their own 10-yard line and Bortles looked like a championship-caliber quarterback. He managed to pull something out of nothing on a flea-flicker that was nearly a bust to find Hurns and a few plays later looked more like Brady going through his reads to find Lee for a first down.
The drive would set up a 43-yard Lambo field goal to extend the Jag’s lead to 20-10.
The Jaguars defense continued to cause headaches for the Patriots offense as the game headed into the fourth quarter. On a first and 10 on the New England 45-yard line, Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack stripped the ball from Patriots running back Dion Lewis. The Jags, however, were unable to capitalize on the turnover and were forced to punt after a three-and-out.
No lead is ever safe with the Goat under center, and on the Patriot’s next possession Brady didn’t disappoint, converting a third and 18, which set up a nine-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Danny Amendola.
The defending Super Bowl champs cut the Jags lead to three points and brought Gillette Stadium back to life with a thunderous roar.
With 8:44 left in the game, anyone who watched Super Bowl LI felt like they’ve seen this script before. The “28-3” signs, commemorating the Patriots historic come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons, were on full display as the Jags took the field following the Amandola touchdown.
A pass interference call on cornerback Jalen Ramsey with just over six minutes left pushed the Patriots past midfield. You could feel the collective heart of Jaguars fans drop, but coverage from the secondary stiffened up and forced a Patriots punt.
The Jags were pinned inside their own red zone and were forced to punt following a blistering three-and-out. The momentum in Gillette Stadium had noticeably shifted.
The Patriots fired back and were quickly back inside the Jags’ 10-yard line, with Jack carried off the field with an ankle injury and Marcell Dareus hobbled off a play later.
Two plays later, Brady connected with Amandola in the back of the end zone to take their first lead with 2:48 left in the game.
It would be up to Bortles to make history and knock off the Goat.
Bortles connected on back-to-back completions to start the drive and brought the Jags across midfield. But on the next two plays, Bortles threw an incompletion and was sacked, setting up a third and 19. The Jags got a short gain on third down and failed to convert on a fourth-and-forever.
The Patriots would take possession of the football with 1:47 left on the clock. The Jags stuffed the Patriots on two straight running plays but on third down, Lewis broke an 18 yard run for a first down and sealed the win for New England.
"It's a locker room obviously with a lot of pain," Marrone said. "I'm sure they're hurting inside. I'm hurting. The players are hurting."
Brady finished the game 26 of 38 for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Bortles was 23 of 36 for 293 and one touchdown.
"It's pretty amazing. Just to be on a team that wins these kinds of games, it's just a great accomplishment," Brady said. "I'm just so proud of everyone on our team, we made so many great plays. Defense played so great when they needed to."
Although the Jags failed to make the Super Bowl, it was an epic season. Especially considering the team ended the previous year with a 3-13 record.
"Guys are upset," Bortles said. "It's not what anybody expects - contrary to popular belief. Those guys fully expected to win that game."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.