It’s weird to wish that a team would let Blake Bortles throw more, especially when that team is up late. Yet there I was. The Jaguars had a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead, the sort that makes a team feel exactly comfortable enough to blow it.
After kicking the field goal to go up 20-10, the Jaguars ran the ball with Leonard Fournette on their next four first downs. They gained 3 total yards on those plays, putting the offense in deep distance again and again. The Jaguars got only one first down on three possessions between their final score and their last desperate drive after losing their lead. The NFL’s most jacked-up team all season closed it by fizzling out.
The ending was not at all like the beginning. The Jaguars played a nearly flawless first half. The running game that half was effective — Fournette had 40 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries — and Bortles was excellent — 13-of-15 for 155 yards and a score, primarily on play-action and shorter passes to his running backs and tight end Marcedes Lewis.
The defense flustered Brady, sacking him twice and hitting him often, which is exactly what it hoped to accomplish against a banged-up superstar. When the Jaguars scored their second touchdown to go up 14-3 midway through the second quarter, they had outgained the Patriots 176 yards to 81 on the same number of possessions.
As we know now, it’s possible that things were going too well for the Jaguars. When the Patriots bounced back with a touchdown drive late in the first half (after the Jaguars inexplicably hurried a punt before the two-minute warning), they gave the ball back to Jacksonville with 55 seconds and two timeouts to work with at their own 25-yard line. Thus the turtling began:
The Jaguars decided to kneel with 55 seconds remaining in the first half and 2 timeouts.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 21, 2018
No team had taken a knee with over 50 seconds remaining in the first half this season.
The Jaguars kneeled, despite having plenty of time to work to move into field goal position and an offense that had played perhaps its best half of the season given the stakes. The iffy logic was that they would be getting the ball at the start of the second half. Really, all they did was signal their fear.
in 2017, if a team got the ball inside the 25 in the last minute of the first half and actually tried to play it out, the most likely outcome was a field goal pic.twitter.com/QSI82hwbZ0— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) January 21, 2018
But I have not come to bury the Jaguars. We’re entertaining hypotheticals here. The Jaguars might have had to punt during that end-of-half possession anyway. And Bortles was much worse in the second half than he was in the first half, even allowing for the fact that he was generally facing much worse down-and-distances.
Nope, this is a Patriots story. This has been the Patriots’ story for almost two decades. This is about how only one team in the NFL seems to consistently turn other teams into shells of themselves — good, competent, accomplished teams that when they come in contact with the Pats, revert to their worst instincts.
The Patriots don’t get got often, but they do get got on occasion, particularly early in football games. Against the Chargers in the 2007 Divisional Round, the Pats trailed 14-3 and were outgained 198 yards to 62 to that point. Then in the 2015 Divisional Round against the Ravens, the Patriots were down 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-14 early in the third quarter only to come back and win by outscoring Baltimore 21-3 to close the game.
The Patriots do this all the damn time.
Teams Trailing by 10+ Points in 4th Quarter in Playoff Game - Last 10 Seasons— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 21, 2018
Rest of NFL: 3-70 pic.twitter.com/5hU3zPJKVs
The two best examples came in Super Bowls. The Seahawks led by 10 points, 24-14, entering the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX. The Falcons led 28-3 late in the third quarter last year. Those opponents were juggernauts — the Seahawks had by far the best defense in the league that year, and the Falcons had the best offense. But both lost because of the same cringeworthy mistake: Neither knew when to just run the damn ball.
On Sunday, it wasn’t hard to see the logic in the Jaguars’ game plan. The ground game worked in the first half, so why not lean on it? But the Patriots adjusted. Fournette would run 13 more times for 36 yards — fewer than 3.0 yards per carry after averaging nearly 4.0 to start the game.
Then again, it’s easy to say you should stay aggressive and be fearless in the face of a team as inevitable as the Patriots. After Julio Jones’ miracle catch in the fourth quarter to put the Falcons at the 22-yard line — setting them up for a potential short field goal that would have given them a two-score lead — Atlanta took a 13-yard sack and had a 10-yard holding penalty that pushed the Falcons well out of field-goal range, forcing them to punt. The rest is history.
The Jags loss and the Falcons loss are different in circumstance — the former was perhaps too conservative, the latter was WAY too aggressive — but similar in the way that the Pats seem to be able to make teams choose wrong in the second half. They force teams to have to evolve as the game unfolds. There’s no sticking with what works. Teams have to be good in multiple facets and anticipate adjustments, and they have to count on failure because the Patriots will almost always get you.
There’s no point believing in any team to beat the Patriots. That’s not saying it won’t and can’t happen. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, but it still happens enough to not be surprising. And my, the Eagles certainly looked good against the Vikings in a 31-point win in Philadelphia.
But going into the AFC Championship, my hope was the Jaguars just might be the sort of young, energetic, pissed off, and just-dumb-enough team to whip the Patriots into submission with their physicality and confidence. I hoped they would be different. And the Jags’ effort was certainly spirited. But in the end they were just one of now 26 playoff wins that Brady and Belichick have notched together.
A lot of those teams they beat were special football teams having special seasons, too. The Patriots just have a way of dispassionately stifling beauty — of reducing creativity and spirit to ordinary, bumbling messes. Brady has now reached a Super Bowl in half of the seasons in which he has been the Patriots’ starter. He’s even blasé after they win.
The Patriots can make even the most unique football team look like just another football team. In the process, they show why they’re perhaps the most special team in sports, as infuriating and terrifying as they are.