FOXBORO -- There was a point in time during the week that Tom Brady wasn't sure he'd be able to play in the AFC title game. Because of a hand-off. In practice.
Imagine that? Imagine if Brady had to check out of the biggest game of his 40-year-old season because of a botched exchange with a running back? Doesn't exactly scream "warrior spirit!"
PATRIOTS 24, JAGUARS 20
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"I wasn’t sure on Wednesday," Brady said. "I certainly didn’t think -- I thought out of all the plays, my season can’t end on a hand-off in practice. We didn’t come this far to end on a hand-off. It’s just one of those things.
"I came in the training room and just was looking at my hand and wasn’t quite sure what happened, and everyone did a great job kind of getting me ready and the training staff and the doctors and Alex [Guerrero]. It was a great team effort. Without that, I definitely wouldn’t be playing."
One of the logical concerns, when it came to Brady's hand, was how it might hold up. Would he be able to take snaps under center? Would he be able to drive the football down the field for four quarters? Might a flukey hand-off rip him open again?
But he played his best in the fourth quarter, going 9-for-14 for 138 yards and two touchdowns to Danny Amendola. For the game, Brady went 26-of-38 for 290 yards.
Brady indicated that he should be able to have his stitches out mid-week, "and then I can just get out there and get normal treatment like I always do and be ready to go." Though Brady played well enough to orchestrate his 54th career fourth-quarter go-ahead victory, he did hint at some discomfort created by his cut, the stitches, and the wrap on his hand to protect it.
"I’d rather not do anything with my hand . . . that’s kind of what I had to deal with," he said. "So, I just wrapped it up and tried to cover it up and see if [I could] go out there and play and be effective.
"I’d rather not wear it. But, I think it sounds kind of arrogant to say, ‘Oh yeah, it bothered me,’ when we had a pretty good game. So, I wouldn’t say that. Doesn’t that sound arrogant if I said that? It’s like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game,’ and he won the tournament."
But that's essentially what happened. The Patriots couldn't get anything going in the first half until the Jaguars gave away two huge chunks of yardage just before the end of the second quarter to put the Patriots in scoring position. Brady was accurate at times, but at others he sailed easy throws high, and even when he completed the short ones, the Jaguars speedy defense was swarming.
Through three quarters Brady had an 87 rating and his team had rushed for a mere 25 yards -- including a 1-yard Brady run and a three-yarder from Amendola. They were one-for-eight on third down. It wasn't pretty.
Then came the fourth quarter, when Brady did what Brady has done so often in his career. It was 11th postseason win when facing a fourth-quarter deficit or tie.
On his first fourth-quarter scoring drive, he drilled a deep comeback to Brandin Cooks, he hit Amendola for 21 yards on a third-and-18, he got Phillip Dorsett for 31 on a flea-flicker, and he hit "Steady Eddie" Amendola (as Matthew Slater calls him) on a shallow cross for the touchdown.
On Brady's second fourth-quarter scoring drive, he flipped a screen to James White that went for 15, he fit a squint-your-eyes-to-see-if-it-was-complete laser to Amendola over the middle, and he found Amendola for a toe-tapping touchdown to take the lead.
"We played a lot better in the second half," Brady said. "We just couldn’t get the drives going, and obviously it wasn’t very good on third down and just got into a little tempo stuff in the second half and played a little bit better. So, it was a great win. Happy for our team and just a great, great game. So proud of all the guys, coaches, everyone. Amazing."
Brady's teammates were posed a relatively simple question about their quarterback after the fact: How?
"Tommy’s the best," Amendola said. "He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met physically, mentally. If there is anything that happens to Tom, I know he can handle it. It was unfortunate to see him get injured mid-week. I know mentally it probably stressed him out a bit and physically I know it’s hard to throw a football with stitches in your thumb.
"Everybody knows how tough he is. Everybody knows that he’s our leader. It’s a testament to his career, his personality, the man he is. Not only is he the best player in our locker room, but he gets everybody else to play well and step their game up and that’s why he’s the best.
"Tom Brady," Slater said simply. One of the most thoughtful and eloquent players in the Patriots locker room, a captain, Slater had little else. "Tom Brady."
Pushed a little further, Slater was still briefly at a loss. He paused before coming up with more.
"The guy is one of a kind," he said. "We've seen a lot of clutch players in this league, over the history of this league, me being a historian of this league, I was raised to appreciate the history and the great players of this league. It's really hard to find a guy who's been able to help his team the way that he has consistently. And to play at the level he's been playing at 40 years of age . . . Tom Brady."