The Jacksonville Jaguars frittered away a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in losing 24-20 to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, yet their unraveling really began in the final 2 minutes of the first half.
As Jacksonville threatened to expand a 14-3 lead, New England coach Bill Belichick called a timeout with 2:20 remaining and things started falling apart for the Jaguars, who would lead until succumbing in the final minutes of a 24-20 heartbreaker.
After the timeout, Blake Bortles dropped back on third-and-7 and zinged a beautiful 12-yard pass that Marcedes Lewis caught at the New England 32, putting the Jaguars within striking distance of a 17-3 or even 21-3 halftime cushion.
Only, the Jaguars were flagged for delay of game.
"Yeah I just thought out of the timeout we lost track," lamented coach Doug Marrone.
Bortles was sacked for a six-yard loss on third-and-12, when the Patriots declined a holding penalty.
So the clock was running when the Jaguars inexplicably rushed their punt with 24 seconds to spare on the play clock.
Danny Amendola's fair catch of Brad Nortman's punt at his 14 came with 2:02 remaining, which essentially gave Brady and Belichick an extra timeout with which to work.
On first-and-10 from his 40, Brady threw a long pass for Rob Gronkowski, who was injured when he got popped by Barry Church on a helmet-to-helmet hit. Church was called for unnecessary roughness, putting the ball at the Jacksonville 45.
"It was a tough call," Church said, "but you've got to go with what they call."
A.J. Bouye was called for pass interference on Brandin Cooks on the next play. The 32-yard penalty gave the Patriots the ball at the Jaguars 13. After a 12-yard catch by Cooks, James White ran it in from the 1 to make it 14-10 with just under a minute left in the half.
That was the 14th time this season the Patriots scored in the last two minutes before halftime.
Even though they had two timeouts and 55 seconds to work with, Bortles twice took a knee and the Jaguars, who had deferred to the second half, went into the locker room up by four, yet it was the Patriots who were feeling good about things.
"We came in at halftime with a good level of confidence that it was a four-point game and we hadn't played well," Belichick said. "If we could get it going then we could win the game. It took us a little while to do that, but that was a big drive for us."
Asked afterward if he had any regrets about not trying to score in the final minute of the first half, Marrone said: "I think more the second-half kickoff. They came down and we had to make some adjustments going into halftime. Wanted to make sure we got that done knowing we were going in getting the ball back."
The Jaguars scored on their opening possession of the second half, and Josh Lambo followed up his 53-yard field goal with a 43-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter that made it 20-10.
No team had ever overcome a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of an AFC championship, but coveted coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia , in what might have been their last game on the home sideline at Gillette Stadium, made all the right adjustments, further burnishing their head coaching credentials.
Brady started pushing the ball downfield to his receivers and the New England defense took away the short middle and dared Bortles to start making plays downfield, too.
While Bortles managed a single first down in the fourth quarter, Brady came through with a pair of TD throws to Amendola.
Amendola had the crucial catch on the first TD drive, hauling in a 21-yard pass from Brady on third-and-18 in front of safety Tashaun Gipson, who said he figures he'd break up that pass nine out of 10 times.
"That play kind of gave them momentum," Gipson said.
It was vintage Brady, too.
"He is the greatest quarterback to ever play this game," Gipson said. "You can never have a safe lead with 12 at the helm. We knew we had to keep our foot on the gas."
Which, remember, they didn't do at the end of the first half.
The Patriots' comeback set up a Super Bowl 52 showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles, who were miffed last week when the NFL mistakenly released an ad that featured Brady and Case Keenum with the Super Bowl trophy between them, signifying a New England-Minnesota matchup.
Instead, it'll be Nick Foles and the Eagles, who routed the Vikings 38-7 in the NFC championship game, trying to dethrone Brady and the Patriots.
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