by Scott Kacsmar
Six years ago today we watched two great games on Championship Sunday. Baltimore had a devastating finish in New England after Lee Evans failed to hang onto what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass, then Billy Cundiff blew a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime instead of a 23-20 loss. Then we watched San Francisco's Kyle Williams etch his name into playoff lore with two huge fumbles on special teams in a game the New York Giants won 20-17 in overtime.
2011 was the first season I started writing weekly recaps of close games, and Championship Sunday has often been the easiest work night of my season each year. This league just cannot seem to get two good, close games anymore. I didn't even have to do a column last year when the Falcons and Patriots easily took care of the Packers and Steelers. Usually we get one good game, like when Seattle came back to beat the Packers in 2014, and one dud like that massive disappointment in 2015 between the Panthers and Cardinals.
This year, we saw one team easily dispose of the other with a dominant performance by its quarterback against a top defense. The other game was close and featured a fourth-quarter comeback and late defensive stand. If you did not watch the games and saw the Super Bowl participants, you probably would have guessed that Tom Brady picked apart the Jaguars while the Eagles pulled out a close one over the Vikings at home, but anyone reading this knows that the roles were reversed. New England had to scrape by the Jaguars while the Eagles really had the Vikings beat at halftime in an astonishingly bad game by Minnesota. Any future reference to Minnesota's historically good third-down defense is going to be met with the reminder that a Nick Foles-led offense went 10-of-14 on third down, and one of those "stops" was a kneeldown by backup Nate Sudfeld to end the game.
But at least we had the one good game, even if the ending felt inevitable.
Game of the Week
Jacksonville Jaguars 20 at New England Patriots 24
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 10 (20-10)
Game Winning Chance Before: 56.6 percent
Game Winning Chance After: 81.8 percent
Win Probability Added: 25.2 percent
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (53-79 at 4QC and 68-80 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (42-37 at 4QC and 54-39 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Well, I guess the Jacksonville woman said it best in 2016. You can't have a newcomer come in and … steal the show. New England is still the headliner in the AFC and took another step forward in claiming the "team of the decade" title again. Jacksonville came the closest it has yet to its first Super Bowl, but instead they'll see the Patriots play in a record 10th Super Bowl in two weeks after another comeback win.
Not to simplify things too much, but the game really came down to the current trust levels in the quarterbacks. The Patriots have the ultimate trust in Tom Brady. We thought New England might target Jacksonville's sketchy run defense, especially with Brady suffering a right hand injury in practice. Running backs and tight ends were going to be used heavily instead of the wide receivers against Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. But no -- the Patriots went against the grain with 22 targets to wide receivers, who really stepped up on a day where Rob Gronkowski left in the first half with a concussion. Meanwhile, Blake Bortles posted very similar numbers to Brady, but he was largely limited to simple reads and play-action passes, and did very little improvising or scrambling.
The Jaguars tried to hide Bortles after getting the lead, and when he had to deliver at the end, the result was what we've come to expect from comeback attempts in New England. Among active starters with at least 15 career opportunities, Brady has the best record at game-winning drive opportunities at 54-39 (.581), while Bortles has the second worst at 7-24 (.226).
But the first 27 minutes of this game really could not have gone better for the Jaguars. The offense was creative and aggressive in getting Bortles involved on early downs in building that 14-3 lead. The turning point came with 2:23 left in the half. Even though the Patriots had just called a timeout, the Jaguars were slow in getting the play off, and a great catch on third-and-7 by Marcedes Lewis for a first down at the New England 32 was negated by a delay of game penalty. That is inexcusable coming out of a timeout. Bortles was then sacked on the next snap. With the clock was still running, the Jaguars made another big mistake in rushing the punt off, giving New England the ball with 2:02 left and saving the Patriots the two-minute warning. On the ensuing drive, Barry Church knocked out Gronkowski with a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit, but that drew a big 15-yard flag. Brady immediately attacked deep to Brandin Cooks, who drew a 32-yard pass interference penalty on Bouye. That was a suspect call after there was hand fighting and Bouye ran Cooks out of real estate at the boundary line on a pass he was never going to catch.
This coverage was so dominant that they basically threw a pity flag for Cooks. Crushed off the field pic.twitter.com/SC3PbW3hco
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 21, 2018
That led to a touchdown, and the Jaguars decided to take two knees despite having 55 seconds and two timeouts left in a 14-10 game. I understand the passive approach when Jacksonville was getting the ball to start the third quarter, but how do you not at least run a draw or a screen pass to Corey Grant to see if something good happens? Grant had 59 receiving yards at halftime and didn't get another target the rest of the game. Later on Sunday, the Eagles had 29 seconds before halftime and came out with a safe pass to Jay Ajayi for 11 yards. That was all Jacksonville needed to try too, and the Eagles ended up getting a field goal out of their drive. Doug Marrone had his team playing well on the road, but this mismanagement of the end of the half was a killer.
As the game wore on, the Jaguars just became more predictable and conservative. Defensive players cited a lack of man coverage in the second half as part of the downfall, even though everyone knows playing man is usually the key to slowing the Patriots down. Offensively, Jacksonville sort of took the approach many wish Atlanta would have used against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, except this wasn't anything close to a 28-3 lead. This was manageable for Brady, even without Gronkowski available. Jacksonville only scored six points on its final eight drives, and that excludes the white flag-raising drive with 55 seconds left before halftime.
In building the 14-3 lead, Jacksonville called six runs to eight passes on first downs. After that point up until the drive where the Jaguars trailed 24-20, the offense went with 13 runs to three passes on first downs. Those 13 runs netted just 25 yards, and the only successful play was a 14-yard run by Leonard Fournette. Overall, Bortles handed off 30 times, but for only 103 yards. That led to a lot of third-and-long situations, and the offense was just 2-of-9 on third down in the second half.
Field position also turned in favor of the Patriots in the second half. Three times a punt by the Patriots pinned the Jaguars at their own 9 or 10. Jacksonville turned one of those drives into points, but had to settle for a field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter after Bortles threw a pass out of bounds on third-and-8. Still, the Jaguars led 20-10 and were just looking for that deathblow. The Patriots reminded us that they will reach deep into the playbook in these desperate moments of trailing by double digits in the playoffs. In the 2014 comeback against Baltimore, it was a 51-yard touchdown pass from Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola that really turned things around. Even in Super Bowl LI, Edelman tried a deep pass for Dion Lewis that fell incomplete before the Patriots converted a crucial fourth down to get the 28-3 comeback going. This time, the lateral pass to Amendola back to Lewis worked for a 20-yard gain, but Myles Jack was able to rip the ball away from Lewis on an incredible showing that really should have gone down as an all-time great play.
Unless there is a new angle out there somewhere, I do not see where Jack was ever down by contact. He was able to get up and had a great shot at a touchdown return to give the Jaguars a 27-10 lead, but he stopped because there was a clear whistle to blow the play dead. Generally, we see referees let these fumbles play out now, and it was ruled a fumble on the field, yet Jack was not allowed to return it. That is a massive officiating error on what could have been a game-clinching score. We saw these blunders in the Titans-Chiefs playoff game where Marcus Mariota fumbled on a sack that was blown dead for "forward progress," an absurd call. Later, Derrick Henry looked to obviously be down before fumbling, but they still let that play out for a return touchdown that was correctly reversed. The Jaguars have every right to be furious about this one.
Still, Jacksonville could have taken more time off the clock and put the game away with an offensive touchdown. New England's Game Winning Chance dipped to a low point of 9.6 percent after the Lewis fumble according to EdjFootball. Instead of capitalizing, the Jaguars went three-and-out. I really think serious consideration should have been given to going for it (or even a fake punt) on fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 42. It just did not feel like a spot where Jacksonville could afford to give the ball right back to the Patriots after the emotional lift from the Lewis fumble. It's one of those situations where Marrone gets crucified in mainstream media if the play fails and Brady has a short field to drive for a touchdown, but can you really expect to slay Goliath if you're afraid of a worst-case scenario of giving up a touchdown and still leading 20-17? Make a yard and keep this thing going. Even if you fail, you can still keep the Patriots out of the end zone for a 20-13 lead. You might even get a sack and knock them out of scoring range. Oh yeah, you are most likely to convert the fourth-and-1 anyway -- the Jaguars converted 62 percent of their power runs -- and keep this drive going. It's the type of underdog strategy that teams fail miserably at in the NFL, and the Patriots are all too happy to see that happen year after year.
Even still, we might not be talking about Jack or fake punts if the Jaguars could have found a fourth-quarter pass rush. Marcell Dareus got Brady down for one big sack, but the Jaguars were only able to pressure Brady twice in 15 plays in the final quarter. On a huge third-and-18, he had the time to step up and find Amendola crossing over the middle for a 21-yard gain. The Patriots then brought out the flea-flicker for a 31-yard gain to Phillip Dorsett, tying the longest gain from scrimmage in the game. Amendola fittingly finished the drive with a 9-yard touchdown and the pressure was back on Jacksonville to preserve a 20-17 lead.
Jacksonville's limited passing game hurt in this spot, and the lack of first downs really hurt with field position. Amendola returned a punt 20 yards and the Patriots were already at the Jacksonville 30 in game-tying field goal range with 4:58 left. But the Patriots knew the value of getting the touchdown, and Amendola added to his list of impressive playoff catches with a 4-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone with 2:48 left.
The Patriots led 24-20 in what would be their fourth comeback win in the playoffs since 2014. The only postseason rally attempt that did not work out for the Patriots in that time was the 2015 AFC Championship Game in Denver. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Broncos were able to pressure Brady 10 times in that fourth quarter as opposed to 12 times by the other four defenses combined in New England's comeback wins. It's the only game among the five where the defense actually got more pressure on Brady in the fourth quarter than it did in the game's first three quarters.
|Pressure Rate on Tom Brady in Playoff Comeback Attempts Since 2014|
|Year||Game||Opp||Score Thru 3Q||Q 1-3 PRESS%||4Q/OT PRESS%||DIFF||Final|
|2014||AFC-DIV||BAL||Tied 28-28||25.0%||22.2%||-2.8%||W 35-31|
|2014||SB||SEA||Trailed 24-14||20.0%||12.5%||-7.5%||W 28-24|
|2015||AFC-CG||at DEN||Trailed 17-12||25.0%||40.0%||15.0%||L 20-18|
|2016||SB||ATL||Trailed 28-9||44.7%||20.0%||-24.7%||W 34-28 OT|
|2017||AFC-CG||JAC||Trailed 17-10||22.2%||13.3%||-8.9%||W 24-20|
|Source: ESPN Stats & Info|
Bortles faced the daunting task of pulling off a fourth-quarter comeback in New England. We've actually seen it in each of the last two seasons, including one by Alex Smith and the Chiefs to start 2017, but the numbers are still unbelievable. Since 2001, the Patriots are 55-3 at home (7-0 in the playoffs) when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. Bortles needed to drive 75 yards, but picked up the first 37 yards in just 36 seconds. Things were looking good until Kyle Van Noy, who had some problems earlier in the game, came in for a big strip-sack to bring up third-and-19. Bortles was fortunate that his fumble wasn't lost. At the two-minute warning, Bortles opted for a short 4-yard throw, but that just brought up fourth-and-15. Bortles then stepped up and delivered a solid throw down the field, but Stephon Gilmore was there for the big pass defense to end the threat.
With three timeouts and 1:47 left, you would have thought the Jaguars had a decent shot at getting another possession. Lewis carried twice to bring up third-and-9, which is usually always a passing situation for Brady. Instead, the Patriots again went against the grain with a run, and Lewis popped it for an 18-yard gain. Prior to that play, the Patriots had 13 carries for just 28 yards. It wasn't easy, but the Patriots did enough in the end to get the win. Jacksonville's inexperience in games like this showed itself at times, but it was a valiant effort either way. I'm not sold that the Steelers would have done better in this game, and it was good to see someone else get a shot at New England for a change.
Jacksonville faced a lot of doubt this postseason largely due to the reputation of its quarterback. However, Bortles made it through 12 quarters of playoff football without a single turnover. There were some breaks in there for sure, but the fact is the 2017 Jaguars are the first team in NFL history to go three games without a giveaway in a single postseason. If this team can hang with the AFC's best on the road, then the future just may be bright if Bortles can show any significant improvement. He'll get Allen Robinson back next year at wide receiver, but this team could still use another weapon and growth from its quarterback, now a likely candidate for a big extension if you can believe that.
Of course, the AFC South should have two new head coaches as well as the returns of Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson. This run was an invaluable learning experience, but the path should be harder for this Jacksonville team to return to this point. We should not forget that in the regular season this team failed to beat the Titans (twice) or close out the Cardinals with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, and also lost to the Jets. Finally succumbing to Brady and the Patriots in New England sounds like a formality in that case, but the Jaguars have a lot to be proud about this season.
They just weren't ready to steal the show yet.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 53
Game-winning drives: 81 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 146/266 (54.9 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 27
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjFootball.