The Patriots slipped past an impressive Jacksonville Jaguars team to win the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium in Sunday's early game. For the most part, the Jaguars controlled the contest: Possessing the ball for 60% of the game and holding a lead up to the final three minutes. With New England facing a third-and-18, trailing 10 to 20 with 11 minutes remaining, Pro-Football-Reference estimated the Patriots’ chance of losing the game at 95.5%. If they were going to advance to Super Bowl LII, New England needed another miracle finish. And they got it.
Danny “Playoff” Amendola taps down with the go-ahead score late in the 4th quarter
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Nine Observations from the Conference Championship…
1. On that aforementioned third-and-18, receiver Danny Amendola ran a deep in-cut and found an opening in the zone between linebacker Telvin Smith and safety Tashaun Gipson for a first down conversion. Smith had drifted a little toward running back James White in the left flat, making the throwing window slightly larger. Amendola would catch two more passes on that drive, including the nine-yard touchdown off a shallow crossing pattern to end it.
2. After the game, several in-stadium observers opined that this was the loudest game in the history of Gillette Stadium. Amendola’s touchdown with under nine minutes remaining closed the gap to 17-20. It also set off a stadium-sized sing along with Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” during the television timeout, as captured by a fan here:
3. Again, on Amendola’s first touchdown, Jaguar’s linebacker Telvin Smith had dropped deep in his zone to chase Brandin Cooks, leaving the goal line open for Amendola. Telvin Smith was also targeted twice in the 1st quarter when in man-to-man coverage. First, a 31-yard pass to Brandin Cooks (100 yards on six catches) up the right seam. Second, a 20-yard completion to Danny Amendola (84 yards on seven catches) on fourth-and-one.
4. The speed and tackling of the Jacksonville defense – particularly their linebackers – was something that Patriots offense had a hard time overcoming. Running back Dion Lewis was held to just 32 yards on seven catches because players like Telvin Smith (on a pass in the flat in the 1st) and safety Barry Church (on a screen pass in the 1st) would not let the slippery runner escape. Linebacker Myles Jack made an incredible play in the 4th when he ran down Dion Lewis from behind, tackled, stripped, and recovered the football in one fluid motion.
5. On his three second half punts, Ryan Allen pinned the Jaguars at their 10 yard line on each kick. That field position may have contributed to a generally conservative offensive approach by Jacksonville as the game wound down. With just over five minutes remaining, Brad Nortman’s punt was returned 20 yards by Danny Amendola, setting up New England at the Jacksonville 30 yard line. Five plays later, Tom Brady would find Amendola in the back of the end zone for the winning score.
Stephon Gilmore essentially sealed the win with a pass break-up on fourth down
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6. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was in on three deep passes to receiver Dede Westbrook in the game’s final minutes. On a second down, Gilmore knocked away a pass up the left sideline. A few minutes later he was stride-for-stride with Westbrook again up the left sideline when the receiver made a terrific catch for 29 yards. On the Jaguars final offensive play of the game, Gilmore leapt in front of Westbrook to bat away a well thrown, fourth-and-15 attempt.
7. For the second week in a row the Patriots defense held a large, power back in check by allowing Leonard Fournette only 3.2 yards per on 24 carries. In his final 14 carries Fournette converted just one first down. On Fournette’s four-yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter the Patriots defensive line was completely overpowered. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy came on a run blitz but he was pushed back three yards into the end zone by Fournette.
Only four of Leonard Fournette’s carries went over four yards.
8. Jacksonville’s offense gained 156 yards in the 2nd quarter, in part due to good planning and in part due to poor execution by the Patriots. The first play in the 2nd started as a play action to running back Corey Grant, but when both safety Eugene Chung and end James Harrison followed the tight end up the right seam, Grant was open to carry a short pass for a 20 yard gain. On the next play, Chung got caught inside and end Eric Lee blitzed the quarterback, allowing tight end Marcedes Lewis open field in right flat for an easy touchdown catch.
9. Jaguars Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett found success twice with an interesting play design. Out of shotgun formation, the quarterback faked a handoff to Leonard Fournette running to the right, and then flips the ball to third-string running back Corey Grant. Grant initially aligned behind the tight end to the left, and once he had the ball he could easily elude the Patriots’ edge defender on that side. Running behind downfield blocks from his wide receiver and tight end, Grant picked up gains of 20 yards in the 1st quarter and 15 yards in the 2nd.