FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was not quite Curt Schilling’s bloody sock. It wasn’t Willis Reed’s gimpy leg, either. But the injured right thumb of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was all that sports fans here could talk about in the days before New England played the Jacksonville Jaguars for the AFC championship on Sunday.
And for good reason. Not only has Brady been the team’s starting quarterback for the past 17 seasons, but he is perhaps the best quarterback of all time, having played in seven Super Bowls. His backup, Brian Hoyer, has one career playoff start, and would not inspire a fraction of the fear that Brady does.
But Patriots fans need not have worried, though Sunday’s game provided plenty of nail-biting moments. By his otherworldly standards, Brady put on a pedestrian performance, but it was enough for the Patriots to claim a 24-20 win over Jacksonville. Brady will now vie for his sixth Super Bowl title, his third in four years, when the Patriots face either the Philadelphia Eagles or Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.
The conference title game was not pretty. For long stretches, the Jaguars appeared poised to pull off one of the bigger upsets in playoff history. The Patriots went down by 14-3 in the second quarter and played from behind for much of the game, struggling to establish their running game. They also lost their top receiver, tight end Rob Gronkowski, to a head injury in the second quarter.
But Brady, who has appeared in more playoff games than any other quarterback, once again performed with ruthless efficiency when it mattered most. Facing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, he engineered two scoring drives — aided by several Jaguars penalties — and put the Patriots ahead for good with less than three minutes remaining.
As they have done for the better part of two decades, Brady and coach Bill Belichick did not buckle under pressure when trailing late. The Patriots’ defense provided the necessary support, stifling the Jaguars late in the game, blocking passes and rushing Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles.
That left Brady with plenty of time on the clock. Showered several times with chants of “Brady, Brady” from the Gillette Stadium crowd, he completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The victory put to rest the drama of the past few days. Brady reportedly hurt the thumb of his throwing hand on Wednesday while handing off a ball to running back Rex Burkhead during practice. He ended up with a sprained ligament and 10 stitches. After the team owner Robert K. Kraft learned of the injury, he raced north from Florida.
The Patriots were tight-lipped as usual. Brady did not speak to the news media on Wednesday or Thursday, and he did not practice those days. When he returned on Friday, Brady wore a glove and said only “we’ll see” when asked if he was confident that he would start on Sunday.
When he emerged for pregame warm-ups on Sunday, it brought cheers from the early contingent of fans. He ran down the sideline wearing a white glove on his left hand and with black tape covering part of his right one. He then fist-pumped his coach and started throwing passes to ball boys and receivers.
Brady extinguished whatever uncertainty he might have felt on the opening drive, completing all six of his passes to four receivers.
Perhaps in a concession to his injury, Brady often worked out of the shotgun and with an empty backfield — giving him more time and more receivers to target. Still, the Jaguars’ pass rushers were able to get to Brady, chasing him out of bounds and sacking him near the line of scrimmage. In what amounted to a minor victory for a road team at Gillette Stadium, the Jaguars held the Patriots to a field goal on that first drive.
With Brady’s thumb no longer a mystery, the question was what Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles would do with his healthy throwing hand. Jacksonville kept things simple, handing the ball to the rookie running back Leonard Fournette and throwing short passes. Bortles (23 of 36 for 293 yards) drove the Jaguars down the field and hit tight end Marcedes Lewis for a 4-yard touchdown.
The Jaguars pushed the lead to 14-3 after Fournette scored on a 4-yard run. They had a chance to pad their lead, but three penalties, including one that was declined, forced the Jaguars to punt with a little more than two minutes left in the first half.
Brady made Jacksonville pay for those mistakes. Before halftime, he hit Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and running back James White. Jaguars safety Barry Church hit Gronkowski in the helmet while tackling him, leading to a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.
Gronkowski did not return, but running back James White scored to close the gap to a far more comfortable 14-10. Keeping the Jaguars close was all Brady and his teammates needed.