FOXBOROUGH, Mass. | It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator of the most rip-your-heart-out defeat in Jaguars’ history was Tom Brady, the NFL’s all-time best quarterback and king of comebacks on a big stage.
Nobody in the devastated Jaguars’ locker room cared that the G.O.A.T. found a way to put a dagger in them, just as he did in overcoming a 28-3 deficit to the Atlanta Falcons at last year’s Super Bowl. Or that he rallied the New England Patriots four other times from double-digit deficits in the postseason.
Ultimately, all that mattered is this was the Jaguars’ moment. This was the golden opportunity of a football lifetime.
Everything had been set up perfectly in the fourth quarter to finish the job Sunday at Gillette Stadium. They were on the cusp of shocking the world, perhaps bringing an end to the New England Patriots’ dynasty in the AFC Championship game.
Somebody making one more lousy, stinkin’ play is all that stood between the Jaguars and the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl. Even better, it would come at the expense of Brady and in the Patriots’ house, the venue where the Jaguars came up short 21 years ago in the same AFC Championship game.
Then, pfftttt. The dream died. From “Duu-val!” to “Duu-fall!” in what felt like a blink of an eye.
Brady, the magician that he is, made the Jaguars’ Super Bowl hopes disappear. He engineered two touchdown drives in the final 12 minutes, rallying the Patriots to a 24-20 victory that almost felt like death afterwards in the losing locker room.
“Just dejected,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “To get this far, it being in your hands, and to not take it home, it’s tough… . This feeling is going to stay for a long time.”
“We didn’t get the job done,” added cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who had publicly guaranteed a Super Bowl victory to a welcome-back-home crowd at EverBank Field last week after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
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Players and coaches alike struggled to come up with the words to describe the pain of letting a 20-10 lead slip away. Just like that, a special season ended in one of the most crushing ways imaginable.
“Probably the more I think about it, the more it’ll hurt, the more it’ll weigh on my mind about what we could have done better,” said head coach Doug Marrone. “Everyone in that locker room is thinking, ‘What could we have done a better job of to relieve the pain?’ It’s tough.
“Outside of, God forbid, somebody passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close of pain that you will have. This is the pain you deal with when you lose football games. This is something that you have to deal with and it hurts, and it stays with you for a long time.”
The Jaguars will have the rest of an agonizing offseason to try and forget how a game they had in control — at least as much as you can have when trying to put away Brady – got away from them at closing time.
“At some point, I’ll be mature about it and realize we had a great season,” said linebacker Myles Jack. “But, yeah, I’ll be sad for a while.”
It appeared Jack might have sealed a Jaguars’ victory when got the game’s only turnover by stripping the ball away from Dion Lewis after a 20-yard catch with 13:37 left in the game. Right before the Patriots receiver’s knee touched the ground, the ball came loose and Jack recovered. The Jaguars had New England on the ropes.
A 10-point lead and all the momentum was on their side. The Patriots were already without super-hero tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was too dinged up from a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Barry Church near the end of the first half.
All the Jaguars had to do was move the chains and bleed some clock, not give Brady time to add to his stupendous legacy.
“At that point, I was like, ‘OK, if we play our perfect game, we should be able to roll up out of here and we’ll be in Minnesota [for Super Bowl] in a little bit,’ ” said Jack. “But yeah, man, Tom Brady did his thing.”
It happened because the Jaguars couldn’t play keep-away in the fourth quarter. Running back Leonard Fournette went nowhere, getting only two yards on four carries. And quarterback Blake Bortles, who played superbly for three quarters, managed to complete just 5 of 13 passes for 68 yards in the last 15 minutes.
“You can never have a safe lead with 12 at the helm,” Jaguars’ safety Tashaun Gipson said of Brady. “We knew we had to keep our foot on the gas… We stopped making plays, some was missed assignments. But you can’t take anything away from them, they made plays.”
All three phases contributed to the collapse. The offense stopped functioning with its previous rhythm. The only bad special teams play of the game, a 20-yard punt return by Amendola, set him up to catch the game-winning TD pass with 2:48 remaining. And Bortles couldn’t answer.
When asked about the Jaguars’ failure to close out the game, defensive tackle Abry Jones replied: “It was Brady being Brady and other people being other people.”
The Jaguars’ defense, after playing superbly most of the day, fell apart at the worst possible time. Brady, who didn’t appear terribly impacted by a hand injury suffered in practice on Wednesday, drove the Patriots 85 yards for one touchdown. Along the way, he converted a third-and-18 to Amendola in front of Gipson for 21 yards that might have been the game-changer.
“I am a better player than to give up a third-and-18,” said Gipson. “If we could re-run that play 10 times, nine out of ten times I make that play.”
There are more than a few plays or decisions the Jaguars would like to take back. One, a brutal delay-of-game penalty in the second quarter nullified a drive-extending, 12-yard pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis to the Patriots’ 32. Instead, Adam Butler sacked Bortles on the replayed third down, ruining a chance to add to a 14-3 lead and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands.
On a potential game-winning drive, Bortles, on first down at the Patriots 38, overthrew Fournette after he got a step on his defender down the left sideline. When Kyle Van Noy sacked Bortles on the next play, he couldn’t do the Brady thing and overcome third-and-19.
In the end, it all came down to the fact the Jaguars’ couldn’t finish a 60-minute game. The Patriots, arguably the most notoriously relentless team in NFL history, simply wouldn’t give up their crown, Gronk or no Gronk.
After the final Brady kneel-down, having watched his quarterback pull another great escape, Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick celebrated joyously. Then he acted later as if Brady’s heroics was nothing beyond the ordinary.
“I mean, look, Tom did a great job and he’s a tough guy,” said Belichick. “We all know that, alright? But, we’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
Really, Bill? Tell that to the Jaguars and all those black-and-teal fans who were on the brink of euphoria, reveling in the franchise’s greatest victory ever.
Because all Tom Brady did, as he’s done to so many opponents before them, is just cut their heart out.
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