FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As the clock wound down and Tom Brady found himself in the middle of another celebration, Tom Coughlin glanced at a television monitor and watched. He, nearly alone in the Jacksonville Jaguars organization, knows the singular feeling of toppling Goliath. As the Jaguars' braintrust waited for an elevator near the conveniently placed television, they all had received a fresh reminder of how very rare those moments are for Patriots opponents.
The absences are overcome, the deficits are erased and the confetti falls again. It is as much of a rhythm as the Patriots' up-tempo offense, as reliable as Brady's presence itself. Nobody ever seriously expected Brady to miss the AFC Championship Game after a practice injury, and nobody ever really thought the game was over, even when the Patriots trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter. The Patriots, with a 24-20 comeback victory over the Jaguars, are going to the eighth Super Bowl of the Brady and Bill Belichick era, with the astounding possibility that they will win their third title in four years for the second time in Brady's career.
What should not take over is Brady weariness. He has the chance to become the first player to win six Super Bowls. The Patriots have mounted unlikelier title runs -- the first one, in 2001, when Brady was a novice, stands out -- but this one, if it is completed in two weeks in Minneapolis, will stand out for weirdness. It has been constructed entirely without Julian Edelman, around whom so much of the offense operates, and with a defense that had to be fixed on the fly after the first month. It had to reach the final stop without Brady's most devastating weapon, Rob Gronkowski, who did not play in the second half Sunday after suffering a head injury on a helmet-to-helmet hit late in the first half. And a bum hand was on the wheel. The Patriots essentially MacGyvered their way through the AFC title match.
"It didn't look good at 2-2, and you just keep showing up to work every day, and we sit in these chairs, and Coach Belichick gets up here and he demands a lot out of us, and he tries to get the most out of us every day," Brady said. "It's not always great. Sometimes it's pretty average, and then you're just trying to get better and better and get to the point where you can make the fourth quarter of a game and try to play well enough to get yourself into the next one."
They're on to the next one again, although the route this time nearly required a detour. Brady -- his right hand finally free of the strip of black tape that protected the stitches he received for a gash near his thumb on Wednesday -- admitted that he wasn't entirely sure when he suffered the injury on a botched handoff in practice that he would be able to play, or at least play effectively. If it had happened on his left hand, Brady said, he wouldn't have given it another thought. But it was on what is inarguably the most valuable hand in the league, the one that keeps the Patriots afloat through even the ugliest games, as this one was.
Belichick downplayed the severity, sarcastically noting that he wasn't "talking about open-heart surgery here." But Brady doesn't like to wear anything on his throwing hand, and even if he's had worse injuries, he hasn't had one as potentially annoying.
"I've never had anything like this," he said. "This was pretty crazy."
Brady joked that it was not all going to end because of a handoff in practice, of all things, but these are the kinds of misfortunes that cause hiccups for other teams and which the Patriots seem to find a way around. The Falcons witnessed it to excruciating effect a year ago -- another comeback, that time in Super Bowl LI, executed without Gronkowski. It was the Jaguars' turn this time, after holding an 11-point lead in the second quarter and a 10-point lead as the fourth quarter began. That the penalties were lopsided -- just one for the Patriots and six for the Jaguars -- or that the Jaguars seemed to lose confidence in Blake Bortles late are part of the conversation in the immediate aftermath of this game, but the common thread of all these years has been Brady covering up for a multitude of Patriots misfortunes.
For all the angst over Brady's well-being -- blood, stiches, gloves -- he completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. A few passes sailed, but even Brady couldn't bring himself to say that the injury bothered him, worrying that it would sound arrogant to say he was impaired after he had such a good game.
It has been 18 years since Brady first arrived in New England, and there is an end of days feel to this season. Brady is 40, and the Patriots are going to have to replacetwo coordinators and perhaps more of their staff in the coming weeks. They have churned through players and coaches before -- Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis -- and survived, but in 2016, when the Patriots and Brady overcame his four-game suspension, there was a hard edge of vengeance about the season. On Sunday, Brady was more relaxed and reflective, unburdened by controversy and understandably relieved. His physical and mental toughness is unquestioned, but as much as Brady is currently winning the battle against time, it eventually comes for all athletes. He will play on as long as he is able, and the Patriots will have him as long as they can. But so much of the structure around him is about to change, and it is impossible to know how those adjustments will impact him. For a rare moment Sunday, Brady departed from the Patriots' ruthless focus on what is in front of them and looked back to marvel at the chance to duplicate that first early brick of a dynasty with a second one as he nears the end of the rainbow.
"I'd have thought you were crazy to think that, or I was crazy to think that," Brady said. "This has just all been -- I guess it's my life, so I'm living it, and it feels very natural and normal, just because I wake up every day and I feel very much the same as I did when I walked in here 18 years ago, I really do. It's a great privilege to play here, and it's a great privilege to play in the NFL, and I try to represent the team well, I try to represent my family, I try to do things the right way, and I'm very blessed. I could never imagine getting the kind of team achievements we've done and had. I mean, I don't think anyone can ever take those for granted. These are pretty amazing times for all of us -- fans included, players, coaches, everyone. It's very special."
The confetti remained on the field hours after the Patriots had gone home and the Jaguars had flown into their offseason. So much about the next two weeks will be familiar for the Patriots, providing them an unquestioned advantage over the Philadelphia Eagles, their opponents for Super Bowl LII. They have one more, too: Brady expects to get his stiches out this week.