FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A practice-field handoff mishap last Wednesday put Tom Brady's injured right hand in the spotlight heading into Sunday afternoon's AFC Championship Game battle between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.
In the end, Brady's hand and right arm were yet again the story as the 40-year-old quarterback led New England to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to come back from a 20-10 deficit and pull off the 24-20 victory, dispatching the upstart Jacksonville squad to advance to Super Bowl LII.
New England will get a chance to defend its title and earn a third Lombardi Trophy in four years for the second time in recent franchise history. With a hint of history repeating itself, the Patriots will face the Eagles in two weeks in Minnesota, the same team they beat following the 2004 season for its second straight title and third in four years at that time.
After throwing for nearly 300 yards and pulling off the comeback against the Jaguars' speedy, No. 1-ranked pass defense, Brady downplayed his injury but admitted it was a unique week thanks to the severe cut just below the thumb on his right hand.
"Never had anything like it. Well, I've had a couple crazy injuries, but this was pretty crazy. They come up and you just deal with them," Brady said. "I think it sounds kind of arrogant to say, 'Oh yeah, it bothered me,' when we had a pretty good game. So, I wouldn't say that. Doesn't that sound arrogant if I said that? It's like when Tiger Woods said, 'That was my C game,' and he won the tournament."
Belichick also jokingly dismissed the hand issue.
"Look, Tom did a great job and he's a tough guy. We all know that, alright? But, we're not talking about open-heart surgery here," Belichick said in his trademark dry tone.
No one, though, could dismiss the well-rounded effort that led to the hard-fought victory. Jacksonville's speed on defense clearly gave New England issues early on, while quarterback Blake Bortles made more than enough throws to put together long drives and build leads of 14-3 and 20-10.
But Danny Amendola came up huge again with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown receptions as well as a key 21-yard gain on third-and-18 just before his first score. Defensively, New England stopped running back Leonard Fournette down the stretch and got timely pass defense, none more so than cornerback Stephon Gilmore's pass breakup on Bortles' last-ditch final fourth-down throw of the game.
"This was a great football game," Belichick exclaimed shortly after accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy signifying the eighth time New England will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl since he arrived in 2000.
"Really, as I said out there, really proud of our players, did a great job. We didn't really do things as well as we'd like to have done them at times in the game, but they battled. They kept competing. In the end, we made enough plays in all three phases of the game. A lot of guys stepped up and that's a good football team. Coach (Doug) Marrone, his staff, Jacksonville -- that's a really good team. But I couldn't be prouder of the way our guys played, competed, fought and in the end executed, made the plays that we had to make to win. We're happy to be moving on."
--Cornerback Stephon Gilmore got off to a tough start this season after joining New England from the Bills on a $65 million free-agent contract last March. The former Pro Bowler struggled in September in zone coverages and then missed time to a concussion.
But he's come on of late to be by far the Patriots' best coverage player and closed the door on Sunday's AFC title game by batting away Blake Bortles final throw of the day, a fourth-down deep ball intended for speedster Dede Westbrook with just less than two minutes to play.
"It wasn't the biggest play I've made, but it was definitely one of the most important," the soft-spoken Gilmore said afterward. "I go out there and try to make plays for my teammates. I have great teammates and my coaches put me in a position to go out there and make plays."
Though Gilmore had his vocal critics in the media and fan base early in the season, his teammates never doubted the cornerback's talents.
"He's a silent assassin. That's the best way I can describe Steph is silent assassin," safety Duron Harmon said. "He doesn't say much, but he always has that look in his eye like, 'I'm good. I'm going to do my job. I'm going to make sure that the guy I'm covering this play is not going to catch the ball.' I'm trying to tell you it's great to have somebody like that on your team."
"When the difference is when you play in Buffalo sometimes you have a bad game and it didn't get talked about," safety Devin McCourty added. "You come here and I learned early in my career, you have one bad game, one bad play or one play that everyone has no idea what happened but they think you did badly, you get 10,000 stories about how you are not good. Steph was good. You don't play corner and bat 100 percent. Plays happen. A very talented guy. We knew that from training camp as soon as we got together. I am happy because you decide to come here and play in games like this. The guy played awesome. He stepped up."
REPORT CARD VS. JAGUARS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-MINUS -- Tom Brady's No. 1 passing offense came out firing against Jacksonville's No. 1 pass defense, completing six passes for 57 yards on the opening drive to a field goal. Though there were lulls in the production, Brady finished by completing 26-of-38 passes for 290 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 108.4 rating. Danny Amendola hauled in both fourth-quarter touchdowns among his seven catches. Brandin Cooks had a big day with six catches for 100 yards as well as drawing a couple long pass interference flags. New England's line gave Brady the time he needed to work against one of the NFL's top pass rushes.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: D -- Despite attempts to do so, New England never found much room to work against a run defense that's the supposed weakness of the unit. The Patriots ran 16 times for 49 yards (3.1 average) that included a long run of 18 yards for Dion Lewis to basically run out the clock. The back led the way with nine rushes for just 34 yards, more than half coming on the one run with less than two minutes to play.
--PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Early on, New England reverted to its early-season struggles allowing Jaguars receivers to run wide open to help build an early lead, with S Patrick Chung and CB Malcolm Butler having particular problems. But in the end, the group made the plays it needed to hold on for victory, including Stephon Gilmore's pretty pass defense on fourth down to secure a Super Bowl berth. Overall, Blake Bortles completed 23-of-36 passes for 293 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a 98.5 rating. Bortles had five different targets catch a pass of 20 yards or longer, led by Allen Hurns' six receptions for 80 yards.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B-Minus -- Leonard Fournette and the Jaguards got things going on the ground a bit in the middle of the first half, with the big back notching a series of productive runs including a 4-yard touchdown. But for the most part, New England's defense was more than competitive on the ground. Fournette finished with 24 carries for 76 yards (3.2 average) and the one score, though he was held to 36 yards on his 13 second-half carries while nursing a lead. Overall, Jacksonville's No. 1-ranked rushing attack ran 30 times for 103 yards (3.4 average).
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- New England's kicking units added solid, complementary plays to the victory. Playing a field position game, punter Ryan Allen put the Jaguars at or inside their own 10-yard line three times in the second half as he did not allow a single return on his six punts. Amendola had a 20-yard punt return to the Jaguars 30 to open the game-winning drive, putting the Patriots in position for the possible game-tying field goal before the drive even began. Neither team's kickoff or kick coverage units did anything of note, while Stephen Gostkowski hit his only field goal of the game from 31 yards in the first quarter.
--COACHING: B -- Bill Belichick's team avoided the distractions of a week that included Brady's freak right-hand injury and turned away Jacksonville's dominant first half to pull off yet another postseason comeback. Offensively, Josh McDaniels' unit lacked its usual efficiency in the short passing game as it dealt with Jacksonville's speed at linebacker. That led to more attempts down the field as well as some trick plays in the form of a flea flicker and double pass. Even without much of a running game and going three of 12 on third down, there was enough late production to win. Matt Patricia's defense tightened up after some early coverage breakdowns, played solid run defense and made the plays it needed to hold off a team that got conservative in the second half. It wasn't New England's best day on the field or the sideline, but it was good enough to dispatch the upstart Jaguars.