The AFC Championship started out swimmingly for the New England Patriots. Tom Brady came out throwing darts, pretty much eliminating any concerns about the impact his injured hand would have on the game. Brady led the offense down the field, and it looked like the game would be a breeze for the heavy favorites. But the Jacksonville Jaguars defense stepped up, forcing a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
The next 20 minutes or so of this game was pretty much a nightmare for Patriots fans. The Jacksonville Jaguars were dominating the game with defense and… Blake Bortles. Say what you about Bortles, but when he had open receivers in front of him and time to throw, he was making plays. New England was not able to get any pressure on Bortles with their front, and he stood in the pocket and delivered the ball on time and on target to any and every Jaguar running circles around the Patriots linebackers and secondary. Bortles and the Jags punched it in on back-to-back drives, and went up two scores.
With just over two minutes to go in the half, the Jaguars were in New England territory, up 14-3, and getting the ball to start the second half. The Pats looked to be in a little trouble. Then a delay of game and a sack gave the ball back to Tom Brady and company with a chance to get back in the game. Brady completed a couple short passes as New England began to move the ball for the first time since the first drive. But New England took a big loss when Rob Gronkowski was knocked out of the game by a hit from Barry Church. The hit drew a flag for unnecessary roughness. That was followed by a pass interference call that netted 32 yards. Brady connected with Brandin Cooks for the score, cutting the lead to four at halftime.
Bill Belichick and his coaching staff went to work at halftime, making adjustments on offense and defense. Jacksonville came out to start the third quarter and began to move the ball, but was ultimately forced into a field goal. After a couple stalled drives, the Jaguars drove from their own nine down to the New England 27-yard line. The bend-don’t-break defense held to Jags to a field goal, but they were now up ten with 14:52 left in the game. The air was sucked out of the stadium. New England needed a touchdown. On the ensuing drive, for the first time since the second quarter, Brady started to move the ball. A couple quick throws set up a trick pass from Danny Amendola to Dion Lewis, but Myles Jack made an incredible individual play, tackling Lewis and stripping the ball at the same time.
Again, New England’s hopes were on the ropes and they were in desperate need of a stop. The defense started to finally blitz Bortles and forced a three and out. On the next drive, Brady marched New England down the field in just over three minutes for an Amendola touchdown. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels again reached into his bag of tricks, pulling out a flea flicker that led to a 31-yard Phillip Dorsett completion. Jacksonville’s defense was on their heels the entire drive, and Gillette Stadium was rocking. The Jaguars were up just three.
Matt Patricia’s defense fed off the energy from the offense, holding Jacksonville to just 22 yards on the next drive. But New England’s offense stalled, giving the Jaguars a chance to close out the game with under six minutes to play. New England was all over Bortles after a Ryan Allen punt pinned them inside the ten, forcing a three and out. A great return from Amendola gave the Pats a short field. With 4:58 to go, down three, Brady had the ball and the game in his hands.
James White and Danny Amendola came up big as Brady made short work of a rattled Jaguars defense. It took just five plays for New England to score, and go up four. Bortles still had time though – just under three minutes to play. After a couple nice plays, the Pats brought the pressure, forcing Bortles into an incompletion and then getting a sack. On fourth and fifteen, Bortles delivered a perfect pass to Dede Westbrook, but Stephon Gilmore made the play of the year. He went airborne, deflecting the pass and securing the Patriots trip to the Super Bowl.
This game was a tale of two halves. After a rough first half, New England made a couple of key adjustments. First off, they applied pressure to Bortles. For the most part, Bortles was effective when New England couldn’t get to him. There was maybe a handful of times in the first half Bortles even had to make a read. In the second half, pressure from the blitz forced him to make decisions, which is where he struggles. Give him short throws, check downs and time in the pocket, and Bortles is solid. Make him make plays, and he struggles.
The second adjustment was on offense. McDaniels opened up the playbook with a couple of trick plays, putting the Jags defense on edge. Gronkowski left the game with a concussion from the Church hit, so the Pats put Amendola in the spotlight. One of the Pats most consistent and dependable players, he reeled in seven catches for two touchdowns, both in the second half. Ask any NFL guy, and they will tell you there is no one better at halftime adjustments than Bill Belichick. It showed big time in this game.
The AFC Championship game was unfamiliar territory for the young Jaguars, and it showed in the fourth quarter. But they’ll be back, don’t you worry. For the New England Patriots, there is no place more familiar. And in two weeks, they’ll be in another familiar place – the Super Bowl.
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