FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots added to the lore of the NFL’s latest, perhaps-greatest dynasty Sunday when they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game despite quarterback Tom Brady’s injured throwing hand, despite the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to a concussion, despite facing deficits of 11 points in the first half and 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Now it’s on to Minneapolis, on to yet another Super Bowl, on to the Philadelphia Eagles and their fill-in quarterback, Nick Foles, who led the dismantling of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game later Sunday.
There’s no way Brady, Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots are going to lose a Super Bowl to a team led by Foles, is there?
That remains to be seen. There are 13 days left to dissect everything about the Feb. 4 matchup. But at first glance, the Patriots appear to have caught a break by not having to face a good, balanced Vikings team that would have achieved a Super Bowl first by playing the big game on its home field.
There is a sameness to this NFL season, a feeling of inevitability that has not changed since Week 1. Then, the issue seemed to be whether the Patriots would make a run at 19-0. Such talk was halted immediately when the Patriots lost at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. But now, the Patriots are back to being the Patriots. They’re headed for their eighth Super Bowl appearance with Brady as their quarterback and Belichick as their coach, seeking their sixth title.
The end of the Patriots’ brilliant run is in sight, although the exact proximity remains up for debate. Belichick is about to turn 66. Brady turns 41 before next season. Belichick’s top coaching lieutenants, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, are leaving after this Super Bowl for head coaching jobs, McDaniels in Indianapolis and Patricia in Detroit. Brady was asked after Sunday’s 24-20 win over the Jaguars if this Super Bowl visit means more.
“I think for all of us it does because you cherish these moments and opportunities,” Brady said. “And I know we’ve had quite a few of them, which we’ve been very blessed to do. It’s just been an unbelievable run, and I think everyone should be really proud of what we accomplished. This is a different team than last year’s team. It didn’t look good at 2-2. You just keep showing up for work every day. And we sit in these chairs and coach Belichick gets up here and he demands a lot out of us and he tries to get the most out of us every day.
“It’s not always great. Sometimes it’s pretty average. And then you’re just trying to get better and better and get to the point where you can make the fourth quarter of a game and try to play well enough to get yourself into the next one. So just proud of our team, proud of what we accomplished. It’s pretty amazing …. And it’s just been a great year. It’d be really great if we take care of business in a couple weeks.”
Brady’s legend grew Sunday, if that’s even possible. He threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to wide receiver Danny Amendola. Those throws were the exclamation points on a 26-for-38, 290-yard passing performance achieved four days after Brady suffered a practice-field cut on his throwing hand that required, depending on which report you believe, anywhere from four to more than 10 stitches. Brady declined to provide the exact amount.
“I think we should keep that a secret a little bit longer,” he said. “It’s not that bad. Enough to be bothersome.”
How bothersome? Brady, who played with his hand wrapped and bandaged by black tape, also declined to be specific about that.
“I’d rather not wear it,” Brady said. “But I think it sounds kind of arrogant to say, ‘Oh yeah, it bothered me,’ and we had a pretty good game. So I wouldn’t say that. Doesn’t that sound arrogant if I said that? It’s like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C-game’ and he won the tournament.”
It was up to Belichick to keep the descriptions of Brady’s exploits from becoming too hyperbolic.
“I mean, look: Tom did a great job, and he’s a tough guy,” Belichick said. “We all know that, all right? But we’re not talking about open heart surgery here.”
Yet even Belichick appeared unusually exuberant when he celebrated Sunday’s victory on the field in the moments immediately afterward.
“We work hard for this,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain. “I’d be surprised if we weren’t emotional. We knew what type of game it was going to be. Obviously we were facing a pretty large deficit there late in the game and we were able to rally back. It’s emotional. You never know how many of these opportunities you’re going to get. To be able to take advantage of it and come out and win the game tonight means a lot to all of us.”
If someone had told the Patriots at the outset of this postseason that they could win a Super Bowl by beating Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans, Blake Bortles and the Jaguars and then Foles and the Eagles, they undoubtedly would have taken it, even if they never would say so.
Foles certainly played well Sunday, throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles overwhelmed the Vikings, 38-7, in Philadelphia. That created a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX, when the Patriots beat the Eagles, 24-21, in a game memorable for wide receiver Terrell Owens playing with a fractured fibula and high ankle sprain, and for quarterback Donovan McNabb’s late-game issues.
But Foles is not Carson Wentz, the league MVP front-runner before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December. And now Belichick and Patricia have two weeks to get ready for Foles.
Brady said he expects his hand to be fine after he gets the stitches removed later this week. The Patriots will have to wait to see whether Gronkowski is cleared to play. He is now subject to the league’s concussion protocol and must receive medical clearance.
A strong argument can be made that the Patriots already are the greatest dynasty in NFL history, having sustained their excellence over nearly two decades in an era of parity and annual upheaval reinforced by free agency and the salary cap. Now, that argument can be bolstered.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years between 2001 and 2004, at the beginning of the Belichick-and-Brady pairing, culminating with the triumph over the Eagles. Now, somewhere near the end of it all, the Patriots again can win three Super Bowls in four years, if they beat the Eagles again. Brady acknowledged Sunday it would have been far-fetched to suggest all those years ago that this was possible.
“I’d have thought you were crazy to think that or I was crazy to think that,” Brady said. “This has just all been — I guess it’s my life so I’m living it. And it feels very natural and normal just because I wake up every day and I feel very much as I did when I walked in here 18 years ago. I really do. It’s a great privilege to play here and it’s a great privilege to play in the NFL, and I try to represent the team well. I try to represent my family. I try to do things the right way, and I’m very blessed.
“I could never imagine getting the kind of team achievements we’ve done and had. I don’t think anyone can ever take those for granted. These are pretty amazing times for all of us — fans included, players, coaches, everyone. It’s very special.”
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