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Patriots heading to SB LII after victory over Jaguars

Tom Brady connected with Danny Amendola on a toe-tapping touchdown late in the fourth quarter, leading New England to yet another electrifying comeback in the postseason to set up a Super Bowl meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles. Here's what we learned as Brady embarks on his eighth Super Bowl appearance courtesy of Sunday's 24-20 AFC Championship Game victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars:

  1. One by one, the odds kept stacking against Brady in a performance reminiscent of his last two thrilling Super Bowl triumphs. Down 10 points, nursing stitches in his throwing hand, directing a one-dimensional attack minus the greatest tight end in history as well as trusty chain-mover Julian Edelman, Brady shredded the league's dominant pass defense for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a sensational fourth quarter. Overflowing the NFL Films vault with the latest in a seemingly unending string of instant classics, Brady stands alone atop quarterback mountain, increasing his unsurmountable lead over the pantheon of gridiron legends. Brady's NFL-record eighth fourth-quarterback comeback in the postseason leaves him with 23 more touchdowns, 2,382 more yards, 11 more victories and three more Super Bowl appearances than any quarterback in playoff history.
  1. Much like Super Bowl LI, the Patriots were clearly outclassed by a younger, physical, more athletic squad through three quarters. Following a familiar pattern, however, they were forced to compensate with Brady's brilliance, a stifling fourth-quarter defense, questionable coaching decisions on the opposing sideline and a series of clutch plays mixed with favorable calls. The Jaguars paid dearly for a delay-of-game penalty late in the second quarter, accrued 68 yards in pass interference penalties attempting to cover Brandin Cooks and got caught playing with Brady's fourth-quarter fire when their own play-calling regressed to an overly conservative approach. After orchestrating a practically perfect game plan through three quarters, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Blake Bortles managed just three fourth-quarter punts and a turnover on downs with the Super Bowl on the horizon.
  1. The final outcome will end up overshadowing Hackett's brilliant management of Bortles over the previous seven quarters versus the AFC's super powers in Pittsburgh and New England. For the second straight week, Hackett eliminated the opposing pass rush, provided Bortles with easy, low-risk throws and allowed his embattled passer to find a comfortable rhythm. Making sound decisions and converting an impressive array of third downs in a ball-control attack, Bortles tied a career-high with 12 consecutive completions in the heart of the afternoon. By halftime, he had completed 13 of 15 throws for 155 yards, one score and a gaudy 131.9 passer rating. Until that fateful final frame, it was fair to make the claim that Bortles had finally lived up to his No. 3 overall draft-pick pedigree, producing the best game of his career on the biggest stage the franchise has seen to date.
  1. For all of the pre-game scrutiny over the daunting prospect of containing the unguardable Rob Gronkowski, the All-Pro tight end hauled in just one pass for 21 yards before safety Barry Church's helmet-to-helmet blow sent him to the locker room late in the second quarter. Although Church's penalty helped the Patriots find the end zone in the halftime two-minute drill, Gronkowski was lost for the remainder of the game with a head injury. As valuable as any non-quarterback in football, his status will be one to monitor leading up to Super Bowl LII.
  1. With Gronkowski nursing a head injury, New England desperately needed Dion Lewis to maintain the white-hot hand he had been boasting for the past month. Instead, Jacksonville's speedy defense bottled up the ultra-elusive tailback at the line of scrimmage and after the catch, showing superlative tackle form on first contact. Lewis' lack of playmaking ability left Brady leading a one-dimensional offense for the game's entirety. Worse, a blindspot in Lewis' peripheral vision allowed Myles Jack to strip the ball on a trick play that would put the Patriots in field-goal territory late in the third quarter. The Pats will need more production out of the Lewis-James White-Rex Burkhead backfield trio against the stifling defense of the NFC champions.
  1. With the exception of a bad drop by Cooks in the third quarter, New England's underappreciated wideouts surprisingly came out on top in their battle versus Jacksonville's daunting pass defense. Stretching the field versus A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey and even overmatched linebacker Telvin Smith, Cooks drew 68 yards in pass-interference penalties to go with 100 receiving yards on six receptions. Colts castoff Phillip Dorsett came through with a highlight of his own, pulling down a 31-yard flea flicker over Myles Jack. After converting six first downs in a season-best performance versus the Titans last week, Amendola took his game to an even higher level in Sunday's fourth quarter. Following a 9-yard touchdown, Amendola broke free for a 20-yard punt return, hauled in a diving red-zone catch and capped off the comeback with a toe-tapping score in the back of the end zone. All Amendola does is take pay cuts and make big plays in the postseason.
  1. While Bill Belichick bathes in the deserving glory of his 11th Super Bowl appearance, the Jaguars' triad of coach Doug Marrone, general manager Dave Caldwell and executive vice president Tom Coughlin merit a tip of the cap for building a bully that bulldozed its way out of the AFC's basement and onto the doorstep of the Super Bowl. After drafting difference-making All-Pro Jalen Ramsey in 2016, the organization's braintrust imported a coterie of tone-setters in Calais Campbell, Leonard Fournette, Cam Robinson, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church to instigate this year's dramatic transformation. Provided Bortles continues to show improvement under Hackett's guiding hand, Jacksonville is here to stay as an AFC contender.
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