FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots always make it look unpreventable, as if there was nothing anyone could have done to keep them out of another Super Bowl. What were the Jacksonville Jaguars supposed to do in the fourth quarter, force feed Tom Brady some sugar, maybe, or plant a high-pitched whine in Coach Bill Belichick's headset or sink some lead in Danny Amendola's ballet shoes? They still would find a way to break their heart into pieces and leave it strewn on the field, along with the crumpled paper cups.
But it was not inevitable, any of it. And that's the thing to impress on your memory, for the years down the line when you want to tell somebody that you got to watch this organization in its heyday and what it was like. No other team would have seen this as doable: down by 10 points; their 40-year-old quarterback with stitches in his bandaged throwing hand; their best receiver, Rob Gronkowski, in the locker room with his head ringing from a concussion; and their opponents outmuscling them all over the field. The Jaguars were leading 20-10 with under 10 minutes to go, and the Patriots couldn't seem to find a play that worked. The Jaguars were young and muscular and raw and underrated, and they came with the punch-in-the-mouth power of Blake Bortles and running back Leonard Fournette.
"I mean, we had it right where we wanted it," Jaguars safety Barry Church said.
But when it was done, it seemed like an inescapable conclusion. Of course Brady and Amendola found a way to score two touchdowns in the last 8:44, and of course the Patriots won the AFC championship game, 24-20, at Gillette Stadium to make the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons and eighth out of the past 17 . Of course an offense that had seemed like the engine wouldn't turn over — and hadn't converted on a third down in the first half — suddenly found big plays when it had to have them — including that third and 18 when Brady reared back and delivered an absolute javelin over the middle to Amendola to keep alive the drive that cut the difference to three points, and all of a sudden 66,000 people were screaming the lyrics to "Livin' on a Prayer."
"When we need it most, that's when we play the best," Belichick said in that toneless basin of a voice.
Of course a defense that had been pushed around for much of the day made the only stop that finally mattered, when Stephon Gilmore raced down the sideline with Dede Westbrook toward the end zone and reached up a long arm to swat away Bortles's very catchable pass with 1:47 to go.
"We had a two-minute drive at the end of the game to win the AFC championship, so there's not a whole lot more you can ask for than that," Bortles said afterward. "You got to take advantage of that and find a way to win."
Later on, when the shock of this one wears off and the Jaguars zero on just how the Patriots did it — and how they do it time and again — they will start with the fact that the Patriots don't beat themselves. They don't make stupid mistakes, they don't play safe, they don't squander, and they execute on every small thing, "try to win every route, win every block," as Amendola said. They make you beat them, and they make you beat them on every possession for four full quarters, not two or three. And even then, you better be ready to play overtime if you intend to pry a trophy from their grasping, stubborn, prideful hands.
Never in their recent history had the Patriots seemed more at a disadvantage. Don't forget, they had lost Julian Edelman and Dont'a Hightower, their best skill player and their best defender, to early-season injuries and started the season 2-2. When they lost Gronkowski to that helmet-to-helmet blow from Church just before halftime, it just seemed like too many losses to overcome.
Then there was the matter of Brady's hand injury, which was apparently more serious than anyone suspected. The Patriots under Belichick, son of a Navy man, are renowned for treating the smallest pieces of information as high-level intelligence, and Brady's hand became an exercise in the art of covertness. It took all week for the specifics of his injury to trickle out, and details in the unconfirmed reports varied: Apparently it happened early in practice Wednesday, when he somehow cut his hand in a freak accident during a collision with running back Rex Burkhead. Depending on who you listened to, he needed either four stitches or 10, he either screamed when it happened or didn't, and it might have bent his thumb back or not.
Brady canceled two news conferences, and when he finally appeared in public Friday, he did so wearing large red gloves. He was listed as questionable to start. Even on Sunday morning when Brady arrived at the stadium for work, he walked past the cameras with his hands planted firmly in the pockets of his parka, not giving anything away.
When he finally took the field, his right hand was swathed in a piece of wide black bandaging from his thumb area to the wrist, and his mood was chippy. As he jogged on to the field, a cameraman moved in close. "F--- out the way," Brady yelled.
It had been, as Amendola said, "stressful." On Wednesday, Brady had wondered whether he would be able to play at all, and it wasn't until Friday in practice that the Patriots knew he would be able throw normally.
"I never had anything like it," he said Sunday night. "I've had a couple of crazy injuries, but nothing like this. . . . I thought, out of all the plays, my season can't end on a handoff in practice."
But it was all an exercise in Patriots cohesion — and in stone-faced focus. Other teams might get rattled by the uncertain status of their quarterback. Not this one. "Toughest guy I ever met," Amendola said. On the toughest team anyone ever saw, led by the toughest coach, one that is utterly convinced that "it's going to be a 60-minute fight, and we're going to have a chance at the end of the game no matter how far down we are," Amendola said.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.