By Ernie Palladino
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Their quarterback had stitches in his throwing hand.
Their monster tight end was still seeing blue birds twirling around in his head.
They were down by 10 in the fourth quarter.
Of course, the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl. Did anyone really think that AFC Championship game with the determined Jaguars would end differently than how it did?
Oh, sure, the Doug Marrone/Tom Coughlin (or is it really the Tom Coughlin/Doug Marrone) team from Jacksonville gave the Pats all they could handle in the 24-20 defeat. That was nothing less than expected. But after a week of nonsense about Brady’s playing status after Rex Burkhead put 12 stitches on the back of his right hand, the legendary quarterback did what has come so naturally to him.
He came alive late, just as he did in last year’s Super Bowl when he brought the Pats all the way back from 25 down against Atlanta to win a fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Only difference was, he had a full squad then. He didn’t this time. Rob Gronkowski, the bulldozing tight end he so closely relies on for big plays, didn’t touch the field in the second half because a second-quarter, helmet-to-helmet hit from Barry Church put him in concussion protocol.
So, down 10, Brady had to make do with the rest of an offense that did just fine without Mr. Gronkowski, thank you. After all, Brady still had multi-purpose receiver Danny Amendola. And it would be that combination — Brady to Amendola — that punched the Pats’ ticket to Minneapolis in two weeks.
The Jags might have felt a sense of impending doom halfway through the period. Brady had just been sacked back to his own 25, down 20-10 and the clock running. But he found Amendola for 21 yards, and then Phillip Dorsett for 31 on a flea-flicker.
The rest was all Amendola. A short throw turned into a 14-yard gain to the Jacksonville 9. And one more pass had Amendola rolling into the end zone with 8:44 left to get the Pats to with three.
Given Brady’s history, only the most ardent of Jacksonville supporters would have thought the team that harassed the quarterback throughout the first half would have had a chance. Brady is as old a hand as it gets at bringing life to teams that appear dead or, at least, sickly. So it’s no surprise what came two possessions after the defense held Blake Bortles and an offense that put together lengthy first-half drives to five and three plays, respectively.
The last drive resulted in a line-drive punt that, yep, Amendola returned from midfield to the Jags’ 30.
Giving Brady field position like that in a comeback situation is sort of like petting a crocodile. You’re going to get bit real fast.
It took him two minutes and change to take that final chunk out of Jacksonville. A 15-yard screen to James White was followed up by an 8-yard throw to Amendola. Brady, a master at quarterback sneaks, bulled forward for 2 and the first down at the 5. White ran for 1.
And then Brady just sat back and looked for Amendola. The throw seemed a bit high to the back of the end zone, but Amendola reeled it in, dragging his feet as he fell across the end line.
Fifty-fourth career comeback in the books.
Ticket to Minnesota punched.
Just so that no one thinks this was all Brady and Amendola, there was some defense, too. Bortles, who played the game of his life, had moved the Jags to the Pats’ 38. But Kyle Van Noy barged in with former Steelers linebacking great James Harrison and dropped Bortles at the two-minute warning.
The Pats still had work to do, but that ended on fourth-and-14 as Stephon Gilmore knocked away a throw downfield that would have landed right in Dede Westbrook’s bread basket had he not gotten a hand on it.
When Dion Lewis took Brady’s handoff around the left corner for a clock-killing first down, Bortles took a football and hurled it deep into the stands in frustration.
That’s what Tom Brady does to teams. Has done it for years.
In big spots.
He threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, two scores down, with stitches in his hand, and no Gronk.
“I’ve had a lot worse,” he said.
He was talking about the cut. But he could have been talking about the whole picture, too.
Bet against him notching his sixth Lombardi Trophy at your own risk.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino