On Wednesday, Tom Brady cut up his thumb on a routine handoff to Rex Burkhead. By Thursday, after the QB had missed practice, a full-blown, internet-fueled conspiracy about Brady’s health had emerged. By Friday, it was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about. So, of course, by Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it barely mattered at all.
Brady came out with tape covering the base of his thumb, which reportedly had more than 10 stitches in it, but his in-game performance seemed unaffected. The legendary passer finished 26-of-38 for 290 yards and two touchdowns, including two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to lift the Patriots over the Jaguars 24-20. While his injured thumb didn’t affect his ability to punch his ticket to his eighth Super Bowl, these six things did.
Stephon Gilmore’s Tipped Pass
Football fans often make fun of Blake Bortles, but if he completed this late-game fourth-and-long pass to Dede Westbrook, he’d be a legend. The problem for Bortles is that while he actually uncorked a pretty good throw, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore made an unbelievable play on the ball.
Here, take another look:
Stephon Gilmore made one heck of a play. DB clinic. pic.twitter.com/V5z2a5v3ew— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) January 21, 2018
If Gilmore had failed to get his hand on the ball, Westbrook might have taken it into the end zone. Instead, it was a turnover on downs, and with less than two minutes remaining, the Patriots soon put the game away—Jacksonville never touched the ball again.
Gilmore joined the Patriots in the offseason on a five-year, $65 million deal. Sunday, he was worth every penny.
Dion Lewis’s Fumble Turning Into a Jacksonville Three-and-Out
The Jaguars have thrived off forcing turnovers all season, including in the playoffs. Jacksonville forced interceptions from Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman to put away the Bills and grabbed an interception and a fumble from Ben Roethlisberger—the latter of which linebacker Telvin Smith took to the end zone—to beat the Steelers. But the game against the Patriots dragged on without a turnover from either team until this Myles Jack strip of Dion Lewis in the fourth quarter:
The full Dion Lewis double pass and fumble play pic.twitter.com/6m9CpXIeMR— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 21, 2018
This is what the Jaguars are built to do. Even on a brilliantly designed trick play like this one, an athlete like Jack not only has the ability to make the big play-saving tackle, but can also force the game-changing turnover. Unfortunately for the Jags, Jack wasn’t able to run it back—he was ruled down by contact on the field—and the Jacksonville offense went three and out on its ensuing possession.
Rob Gronkowski Suffering a Concussion
In the second quarter, Gronkowski extended to try to catch a pass and suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church.
In case you think Gronkowski dipped his head pic.twitter.com/N9wP4BOB6w— CleaveCity (@TXCleaver) January 21, 2018
Gronkowski had trouble balancing as he got up and went into the NFL’s concussion protocol. By the end of the third quarter, he was diagnosed with a concussion and ruled out for the rest of the game.
Not only is Gronk the biggest matchup problem in the NFL playoffs, he’s been more important to the Patriots than ever since Julian Edelman went down with a season-ending ACL tear in August. Remember the Patriots’ ugly Week 14 loss to the Dolphins? Gronk was serving a suspension for a dirty hit he committed the previous week, and the New England offense looked anemic without him, finishing with just 248 total yards and 20 points while Brady threw two picks.
The offense briefly took a similar nosedive after Gronk left this game, beginning the second half with two punts and that fumble from Lewis. But as the Pats forced punt after punt out of the Jaguars, the Jacksonville defense tired out, and New England got standout performances from Brandin Cooks (six receptions, 100 yards) and Danny Amendola (seven receptions, 84 yards, two touchdowns). Amendola in particular became a weapon for the Patriots offense down the stretch:
Danny Amendola’s #Clutch Day
The takes write themselves:
WHAT A THROW AND WHAT A CATCH BY THE CLUTCHEST PATRIOT RECEIVER DANNY AMENDOLA.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) January 21, 2018
The “clutchest” Pats receiver had himself a day to continue his already impressive playoff performance. To find the last time Amendola delivered a postseason game this good, you’d have to go all the way back to one week ago, when he posted 112 yards on 11 receptions against the Titans. Amendola also threw the pass to Lewis on that trick play, which would have worked out pretty well had it not ended in a fumble.
The Jaguars’ Game Plan Completely Crumbling in the Second Half
Holy hell, the Patriots know how to adjust at halftime. After racking up more than 200 yards and 14 points in the first half, the Jaguars offense disappeared in the second. Here’s the team’s drive chart from that half:
- Nine plays, field goal
- Three plays, punt
- Eleven plays, field goal
- Three plays, punt
- Five plays, punt
- Three plays, punt
- Six plays, turnover on downs
The Patriots defense has been curious this season, ranking fifth in points allowed but 29th in yards. Matt Patricia’s crew is the ultimate bend-but-don’t-break unit, and on Sunday the Patriots embodied that mentality as much as ever, allowing 165 yards but just six points in the second half.
One Penalty for 10 Yards
The NFL conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this one:
The Patriots were called for 1 penalty against the Jaguars— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2018
It is the fewest penalties called on one team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship... when the Patriots were called for 1 penalty in a win over the Ravens
Of course, the lack of whistles against the Patriots is only half the story. There was also this:
Folks... this is Defense Pass interference now.... pic.twitter.com/aWd8RQi9yh— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) January 21, 2018
The narrative for NFL Truthers always swings back and forth from “the NFL wants the Patriots to win so the Super Bowl gets good ratings” and “Roger Goodell still hates the Patriots because of Deflategate.” Today it appears to be the former, never mind the fact the A.J. Bouye penalty occurred on a first down with 1:17 left in the first half and the Jags had approximately 1,305 additional chances after this to put the game away. Nope, must have been the refs.