FOXBORO – Somewhere in Jacksonville, there had to be a whiteboard drawn up with the following “MUST DO'S!!” on it.
PATRIOTS 24, JAGUARS 20
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Control Rob Gronkowski.
Control Dion Lewis.
Win turnover battle.
Convert third downs.
Stop Tom Brady on third down.
Win time of possession.
Stop the run.
Convert in red zone.
Get brilliance from Blake Bortles.
When the Jaguars return to Jacksonville, they will look at this hypothetical whiteboard. They’ll see that they checked every . . . single . . . box. Even the last one. Then they'll clean out their lockers and go home for the season.
The Jaguars -- who had an upset for the ages in their hands until they realized it was too hot to hold -- will have to grapple with how they let it get away.
They will never accept that they weren’t a better team on this day. They don’t have to. But they will have to accept that they got beat. This was one of those stealth assassinations by the Patriots -- a blowdart in the back of the neck from behind a bush 200 feet away.
The Jaguars will watch another Super Bowl. Like the Lions, Browns and Texans, they still don’t know what it’s like. The Patriots are headed to their eighth Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick Era. That means 15 percent of all Super Bowls will have included those two. Twenty-one percent of all Super Bowls will have featured Belichick on the sidelines (nine with New England and two with the Giants).
Even Tom Coughlin couldn’t save the Jaguars from the inevitable Brady’ing they got in the fourth quarter Sunday evening.
Watching Brady bring the Patriots back from a 20-10 deficit without Gronk over the last 15 minutes was like watching MacGyver disarm a bomb before the orphanage blew up.
Even after the wires sparked (Lewis getting stripped by Myles Jack with 13:53 left). Even after he dropped his wrench (a sack and an incompletion bringing up third-and-18 with 10:49 left). Even after the lights went out (forced to punt with six minutes left, still trailing by three). You knew, I knew, the Jaguars knew and America knew how it would end.
With kneeldowns and confetti and the Patriots heading to Super Bowl 52. With another local opportunity to produce odes and t-shirts commemorating the grit, preparation and resourcefulness that New England loves and makes the rest of the country want to punch itself in the face.
The Jaguars, with their Pro Bowl corners (Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye), their Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Calais Campbell), their $90 million defensive lineman (Malik Jackson), a defensive end taken third-overall in 2015 (Dante Fowler) and two rocket-fueled linebackers (Myles Jack and Telvin Smith), got outfoxed by Danny Amendola.
Undrafted, 32-year-old Danny Amendola, noted for annual pay cuts, a lengthy injury history, a modeling contract and a narrow frame that hasn’t been acceptable by NFL standards since the 1970s.
Danny Amendola was the Robin to Brady’s Batman this time. Over an eight-miniute span in the fourth quarter he caught five passes for 56 yards and two touchdowns and returned a punt 20 yards, helping bring the Patriots from down 20-10 to ahead 24-20.
It was Amendola and Brandin Cooks -- a player maligned this year in a way similar to what Amendola once got -- carrying the Patriots after their Hall of Fame-bound tight end that got knocked out with a concussion in the second quarter.
This will be the kind of game Jaguars fans will have to watch a dozen times before they finally see the tiny things that caused them to lose. Because the numbers sure don’t show it. Gronk caught one pass for 21 yards. The Jags were 6-for-15 on third down and the Patriots were 3-for-12. The Patriots had the game’s only turnover.
The Jaguars scored touchdowns on both red-zone trips. The Patriots ran for 46 yards while the Jags ran for 101 (and 18 of those Patriots yards came on one run in clock-killing mode). The Jags had the ball 10 minutes longer than the Patriots, and Blake Bortles went 23-for-36 for 293.
But the Jags mismanaged the clock before the half. In a three-play span just before halftime, they took three penalties. One of them was a delay of game after a Patriots time out. Moronic. The clock stoppages and penalties gave the ball back to New England and the Patriots -- predictably -- got a touchdown before the break instead of the Jags being able to double up possessions at the end of one half and the beginning of the other.
Meanwhile, a Jags coaching staff that probably figured it would be playing from behind and trying to keep the ball away from New England didn’t adjust to the flow of the game and take what the Patriots were giving -- miles of open space in the secondary.
The Jags kept running into the middle of the Patriots defense on first down. Leonard Fournette looked like the drunk guy at the barbeque who keeps walking into the slider.
In the second half, this is what Jacksonville did on first down while it had the lead: Fournette for 2, Fournette for 1, Fournette for 3, incomplete, Fournette for 0, FLEA FLICKER for 15-yard completion! Fournette for 2, Fournette for 14, incomplete, Fournette for 2, Fournette for 1, Fournette for 1, Fournette for -1.
Think about that for a second. The Jaguars had the Patriots on the run. Gronk was down. Julian Edelman never played. Donta Hightower never played. They’d taken the running backs away on the ground and in the air. The 40-year-old quarterback was playing with a gash in his hand. Both Patriots coordinators have a foot out the door on their way to new coaching gigs. Bortles was playing like Aaron Rodgers. And they ran 10 dive plays, a flea flicker and threw two incompletions on the first 13 first down plays they ran in the second half.
That’s just asking for the result they got. If you steal a lead against the Patriots, you don’t hide in the closet and hope they don’t come looking for you there.
They always look in the closet.
And they always get you. In the end, they always get you.