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But Brady, who has also appeared in more playoff games than any other quarterback, once again led the Patriots 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, when he hit wide receiver Danny Amendola with a 4-yard touchdown pass.
“If you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary, his picture is right beside it,” Coach Bill Belichick said of Amendola.
As they have done for years, Brady and Belichick did not buckle under pressure when trailing late. The Patriots’ defense provided the necessary support, stifling the Jaguars, blocking passes and rushing Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles in the second half.
That left Brady, 40 years old and showing few signs of slowing down, with plenty of time on the clock. Showered several times by chants of “Brady, Brady” from the Gillette Stadium crowd, he completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“When things start to crack a little bit, some teams haven’t had the same experience,” Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft said of the Jaguars, who have now played in three conference title games, losing all of them.
The victory put to rest the drama of the previous few days. Brady hurt his thumb on Wednesday while handing off to running back Rex Burkhead during practice. He ended up with a sprained ligament and several stitches. After Kraft learned of the injury, he raced home from Florida.
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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.
“I’ve had a couple of crazy injuries, but this was pretty crazy,” Brady said after the game. “They come up and you just deal with them, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do.”
When he emerged for 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-bumped his coach, using the troublesome right hand, and started throwing passes to ball boys and receivers.
“We’re not talking about open heart surgery here,” Belichick said with typical sarcasm after the game.
Brady extinguished uncertainty 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 visiting team at Gillette Stadium, the Jaguars held the Patriots to a field goal on that first drive.
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With Brady’s thumb no longer a mystery, the question was what Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles would do with his healthy throwing hand. The Jaguars kept things simple, handing the ball to the rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who had 76 yards rushing, 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 them to punt with a little more than two minutes left in the first half.
Brady made Jacksonville pay for those mistakes. For nearly two decades, fans here have watched him dissect opposing defenses. Before halftime, Brady hit Brandin Cooks, 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.