Tom Brady and the New England Patriots put all of that aside Sunday and added to the lore of the NFL's greatest recent dynasty. Brady threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Danny Amendola as the Patriots came back to beat the Jaguars, 24-20, in a competitive AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.
"Tom is the best, man," Amendola said. "He's the toughest guy I've ever met physically and mentally. If there's anything that happens to Tom, I know he can handle it. It was unfortunate to see him get injured midweek. I know mentally it probably stressed him out a bit. Physically, I know it's hard to throw a football with stitches in your thumb. Everybody knows how tough he is. Everybody knows that he's our leader."
The Patriots trailed 14-3 in the first half after a touchdown pass by Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and a touchdown run by powerful rookie tailback Leonard Fournette. Brady seemed less bothered by his hand injury than by the Jaguars, who ranked second in the league in total defense. New England pulled within 14-10 by halftime but by then had lost Gronkowski, its star tight end and matchup nightmare, because of a concussion suffered on an illegal hit.
The Patriots faced a 20-10 deficit in the fourth quarter. But Brady threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Amendola with just less than nine minutes remaining to cap a drive that featured a third-and-18 conversion, then teamed with Amendola again for a four-yard touchdown with 2:48 left. The Patriots held on from there, getting a pass breakup by cornerback Stephon Gilmore on fourth down and then running out the clock.
"We made some plays that we needed to make," Belichick said. "That third and 18 was a huge play to get us out of a hole and get us started on that drive."
This time, even the presence of Coughlin was not enough to derail the Patriots. Coughlin beat the Patriots in two Super Bowls as coach of the New York Giants. He rebuilt this Jaguars team as the franchise's front-office football czar and spent Sunday in the press box, muttering under his breath and occasionally pounding a fist on the table in front of him. The Jaguars lost for the third time in three appearances in AFC championship games, the previous two defeats coming when Coughlin was their coach.
"Now we know how to get here," Jaguars running back Corey Grant said. "We can come back next season and in the offseason and work hard so we can get back here and possibly get to the Super Bowl."
The Patriots are off to another Super Bowl amid recent reports of internal strife and speculation that this is the final go-round with Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft together. This victory came on the 24th anniversary of Kraft purchasing the franchise.
"This is what I dreamt about as a fan in the stands, just like all of you," Kraft said during the on-field postgame celebration. "And now we have to go to Minnesota and finish the job."
Brady played without a glove on his injured throwing hand, but he did have it wrapped and bandaged with black tape. He had been listed as questionable on the Patriots' injury report after he hurt his hand during Wednesday's practice, reportedly in a collision with running back Rex Burkhead.
"I've never had anything like it," Brady said. "I've had a couple crazy injuries. But this was pretty crazy. Things come up, and you just deal with them. I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do on Wednesday, Wednesday night. And then on Thursday, I wasn't sure. Friday gave me a little confidence. Saturday I was just trying to figure out what we could do with it. And Sunday I tried to come out here and make it happen."
ESPN reported Sunday that more than 10 stitches were required to close a cut on the inside of Brady's right hand near his thumb. Previous reports had indicated that Brady had four stitches. He declined to specify, but he did say he had had major midweek doubts about being able to play.
"I wasn't sure on Wednesday," Brady said. "I thought of all the plays, my season can't end on a handoff in practice. I didn't come this far to end on a handoff. It was one of those things. I came in the training room and was looking at my hand and wasn't quite sure what happened. Everyone did a great job just kind of getting me ready, the training staff and the doctors and Alex [Guerrero, Brady's trainer]. It was a great team effort. Without that, I definitely wouldn't be playing."
Gronkowski exited following a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church late in the first half that drew an unnecessary-roughness penalty.
"It's hard when you lose such a critical part of your team and offense," Brady said. "Hopefully he's okay. It was a tough shot he took."
The Jaguars controlled the game most of the way. But even they knew to be wary of the Patriots' late-game capabilities.
"That's Tom Brady," Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson said. "That's a great quarterback. They've got good receivers over there. They're going to make plays. At the end of day, they came down and made a play."
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