The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons and the eighth time this century after a hard-fought, comeback victory over the Jaguars in the AFC championship game. With crucial defensive adjustments and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady proved once again in the Pats’ 24-20 win that they make up the best head coach–quarterback tandem in the history of the sport. But this game also served as a reminder that, as we’ve seen so many times throughout New England’s incredible dynastic run over the past 17 years, the Patriots always seem to have an unsung hero or two up their sleeve that they can unleash when they need it most.
Running back James White was the unlikely star of last year’s Super Bowl LI win over the Falcons with a 14-catch, 110-yard performance that included the game-winning touchdown run in overtime. In Super Bowl XLIX, it was cornerback Malcolm Butler, who picked off Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson from the 1-yard line to seal the win. In years past, guys like Deion Branch, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel, and a host of others came up big when New England desperately needed a spark. On Sunday, the Patriots got just that type of boost from a duo of less-heralded players: receiver Danny Amendola and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
When Rob Gronkowski left the game late in the second quarter with a concussion, the Patriots were forced to adapt on the fly, making big changes to a game plan that undoubtedly featured the big tight end as a focal point down the field. Amendola, who finished the regular season third on the team in catches and scored just two touchdowns, stepped up for the second straight game (he caught 11 passes for 112 yards last week in the team’s win over Tennessee) and cemented himself a spot in New England playoff lore. Amendola was on the receiving end of Brady’s crucial third-and-18 reception early in the fourth quarter:
He added another 14-yard catch later that drive, then caught this pass over the middle and ran it in for a score, pulling the Patriots to within three points, 20-17.
Amendola wasn’t done. With 2:56 to go, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound pass catcher went up high to corral a Brady pass before toe-tapping along the back of the end zone to put the Patriots ahead for good.
In all, the ninth-year pro caught five balls for 56 yards and two scores in the final two quarters, becoming one of just three players in NFL history to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a playoff comeback win.
But even after Amendola’s heroics, the Jaguars still had life. With 2:48 left in the game, there was plenty of time for Jacksonville to drive back down the field and retake the lead. Blake Bortles hit Dede Westbrook for a big gain on the second play of the drive, pushing the Jags into New England territory. But Jacksonville quickly found itself in a fourth-and-15 from Patriots’ 43-yard line with its season, and a Super Bowl berth, on the line. That’s when Gilmore—the Patriots’ up-and-down big-ticket free-agent acquisition over the offseason—made the biggest play of his career, and maybe one of the best defensive plays of the NFL season.
Bortles escaped pressure, stepped up in the pocket, and launched a pass down the right sideline to a streaking Westbrook. Westbrook had what looked like a step on Gilmore, but the Patriots’ $65 million man leaped in the air and broke up the pass with a diving, full-extension reach.
Had Gilmore mistimed his jump or failed to break the pass up, Westbrook would’ve picked up the first down and may have even scored to give the Jaguars the lead. Instead, he delivered the biggest play of the game—exactly the type of play that New England signed the former Buffalo Bill to make. Gilmore had struggled in the Patriots’ scheme early in the year, stoking fears that he’d be a big-money bust. But along with the rest of the team’s pass defense, the corner quietly improved as the year went on, and he came up big when his team needed him most. It was a perfect defensive play, as clutch as they come.
There’s no taking away from what Brady and Belichick have done together for going on two decades, but even the best head coach–quarterback tandem of all time has needed a little bit of help along the way. On Sunday, Brady was brilliant and Belichick again showed why his teams are so hard to beat. But the Patriots reminded us all that football’s still the ultimate team sport—and they couldn’t have beaten the Jaguars and earned another chance at Super Bowl glory without crucial plays from a couple of unlikely heroes.