Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 21, 2018

With 4th Quarter Magic, The Patriots Advance

From the moment it was revealed, the betting line for Sunday’s AFC Championship game seemed, to this observer at least, to be a case study in irrational exuberance. Perhaps for the oddsmakers, victories in eleven of the last twelve regular season games and a 35-14 dismantling of the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs made it easy to forget how the season began for the New England Patriots. By installing the Pats as 9 ½ point favorites over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC title tilt, the Las Vegas sports books all but assumed that Tom Brady and company would be off to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII in two weeks. But there was a time back in September, during the first four weeks of the then-young NFL season, when the Super Bowl chances for this Pats team seemed very remote.

Before a single regular season down had been played there was rampant talk throughout the region about the possibility of a perfect season. That hyperbole lasted all of three quarters of New England’s first game, at home against Kansas City. The Patriots 27-21 with one period to play on that opening Thursday night. Then the Patriots defense came up empty in crunch time, surrendering three unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter, as the visitors rallied for a 42-21 victory. Three weeks and a couple of wins later, New England spent much of the day playing catch up to the Carolina Panthers. While Brady managed to rally his offense several times, in the end the defense again buckled late, and the Panthers prevailed 33-30, with Graham Gano kicking a 48-yard field goal as time expired.

At that point New England was a middling 2-2, with a defensive unit that ranked at or near the bottom of the league in numerous statistical categories. Then the defense got on track, and the Pats rolled off eight straight wins, with no opponent managing more than 17 points during that streak. Both the victories and the defensive efficiency ended with a 27-20 loss at Miami in Week 14, but New England rebounded to close the season with an important road win against the Steelers and a pair of home triumphs over the divisional rivals Bills and Jets.

At 13-3 New England’s record was as good as any team in the league, and just as they were in every single regular season contest and in the first playoff match against the Titans, one would expect the Patriots to be favored at home against the upstart Jaguars. But while Jacksonville might have been an unlikely contestant this late in the postseason – Las Vegas listed the Jaguars at 80-1 to reach the Super Bowl before the season began – after a desultory Wild Card Game against Buffalo the Jaguars showed their mettle last week in Pittsburgh.

There Jacksonville stunned the Steelers and their fans by running up a 28-7 lead through the first twenty-eight minutes of play. Pittsburgh rallied with a touchdown just before halftime, then cut the margin to 28-21 on the opening drive of the second half. But from that point Blake Bortles matched the far more famous Ben Roethlisberger drive for drive and big play for big play, with the underdog Jaguars eventually ending the Steelers season 45-42.

As if that weren’t enough to make a 9 ½ point line (which dropped by only a point in the wake of the mysterious midweek injury to Tom Brady throwing hand) seem high, there was also the presence of Jacksonville’s secret weapon. The Jaguars were just one season removed from going 3-13, and much of the credit for their remarkable turnaround goes to Tom Coughlin. The team’s original coach from 1995 to 2002 was brought back last offseason to head the Jaguars front office. As he had done as coach with both Jacksonville and the New York Giants, Coughlin instilled order, discipline, and a stern ethic of team over self to what had been a laid-back team culture at EverBank Field. But more than that, Coughlin is kryptonite to New England’s superman on the sidelines, head coach Bill Belichick. Coming into Sunday’s game Coughlin teams had faced Belichick squads seven times, with the former holding a 5-2 record in those contests. By far the two biggest wins were when Coughlin’s Giants overcame the odds to down Belichick’s Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. While Coughlin might be up in the coaches’ box rather than patrolling the sidelines, might some of his magic wear off on Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone and quarterback Bortles?

For more than three quarters it looked very much like the answer to that question was yes. As in the loss to Kansas City, New England was burned by big plays, with Bortles finding Allen Hurns and Corey Grant for large gains early on. As in the loss to Carolina, the Patriots were being beaten by an efficient quarterback. When he wasn’t passing Bortles handed to ball to Leonard Fournette, who rumbled into the end zone midway through the second quarter to put Jacksonville up 14-3. And as in the loss to Miami, at times New England just looked out of sync, especially when a trick play early in the fourth quarter turned from a long gain into a turnover as Myles Jack stripped the ball from Dion Lewis.

But Jacksonville was forced to punt after that fumble recovery, and with just over twelve minutes remaining the Patriots offense took over at its own 15-yard line. That was when a different kind of magic took hold, a fourth quarter sorcery that Patriots fans have come to rely on. In eight plays Brady marched his offense down the field, converting a 3rd and 18 with a 21-yard completion to Danny Amendola, then finding Phillip Dorsett for 31 yards on the next play. A 9-yard toss and run to Amendola cut the Jacksonville lead to 20-17 with more than half of the final period still to play.

Then Amendola returned a punt 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30, giving Brady a short field with just under five minutes remaining. Five plays later he found Amendola again, this time in the back of the end zone, and New England took its first lead since an early 3-0 advantage.

Just inside the two-minute warning a desperation fourth down heave by Bortles was batted away, and on the following third down play by New England, Lewis got a key block and turned the left corner for 18 yards and the first down that sealed the Patriots 24-20 victory. So, Tom Brady and company are indeed off to Minneapolis for another Super Bowl. It’s their eighth appearance in eighteen seasons and third in the last four. But don’t be fooled by those numbers. Despite what the oddsmakers thought, getting there was anything but easy.

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Responses

  1. Fun times for football fans yesterday, Mike. The defensive penalties put the kibosh on Jacksonville’s chances for defeating New England this year. It’s a game of minutes as well as yards.
    Ω

    • Very true Allan. The Jaguars did lose some of the self-control that Coughlin preaches, but no Jacksonville fan should hang his or her head. The Jaguars played a great game. New England just made the right defensive adjustments at halftime, and Brady and the offense came through at the end. Or the game was fixed from the start, if you want to believe the legions of Patriots haters!

      Thanks as always,
      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • Believing in a ‘Fix” is a looooong stretch, if you ask me. The Pats did what the Pats do—grind it out for 60 minutes.
        Ω

  2. Super analysis! What makes Belichick Belichick is the ability to get the most out of everyone – coaches and players alike. And they improve each game during the season.

    • Thanks Don. The Pats certainly made good defensive adjustments at halftime, basically shutting down the Jacksonville offense over the final thirty minutes. Then Brady and the offense did what they do in the late going. Or it was all fixed from the start, if you choose to believe the legions of NE haters!

      Thanks again,
      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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