FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady said there was a moment last week when he seriously wondered if he could play in the AFC Championship Game.
It was Wednesday, right after he collided with Patriots teammate Rex Burkhead on a handoff, jamming his right thumb and leaving a cut that required several stitches.
“I thought, ‘Of all the plays, my season can’t end on a handoff in practice,’ ” Brady said.
By Sunday, Brady’s hand was fine. So was his Captain Comeback cape.
Trailing Jacksonville by 10 points in the fourth quarter, Brady led two precision-filled drives, hitting Danny Amendola with touchdown passes both times to give the Patriots a 24-20 triumph at Gillette Stadium.
The Jaguars were brilliant for three quarters but couldn’t stop Brady from engineering his 54th career fourth-quarter go-ahead victory.
“Outside of — God forbid — someone passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close of pain that you will have,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said.
Next stop for the Patriots: Minneapolis. New England will meet the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Super Bowl LII.
New England is making its NFL-record 10th trip to the Super Bowl and is 5-2 in those games in the Brady/Bill Belichick era.
Jacksonville missed a chance to reach its first Super Bowl. It took a 14-10 lead into halftime and stretched it to 20-10 early in the fourth quarter after field goals of 54 and 43 yards by Josh Lambo.
The Patriots offense was stuck without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit before halftime and didn’t return. Fans had grown restless by the time New England took possession at its own 15-yard line with 12 minutes, 3 seconds remaining.
A turning point came early that drive, when the Patriots faced third-and-18 from their own 25. Amendola found a soft spot in the middle of Jacksonville’s defense, and Brady, who’d just taken a sack, hit him for a 21-yard gain.
“He made a heck of a catch,” Brady said. “Big play in the game. Without that, we don’t go down to score that touchdown [on a 9-yard catch by Amendola].”
Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles had been the one with the hot hand for three quarters. At one point, he had completed 18 of 22 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. He played turnover-free, and Jacksonville had been 8-0 in the eight previous games when he did that.
But Bortles completed only five of his final 14 passes, as the Patriots kept making stops.
“That [locker] room fully expected to win this game,” Bortles said. “And I think everybody is shocked, disappointed and upset.”
After two Bortles incompletions, Jacksonville punted from its own 9-yard line with 5:10 remaining. The Jaguars tried a quick kick, but Amendola was ready, returning it 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30.
Four plays later, Brady passed to the back of the end zone and Amendola made a leaping catch, barely keeping his toes inbounds as he fell to the ground.
“Danny’s such a good football player,” Belichick said. “When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary, his picture is right there beside it. It doesn’t matter what it is — fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery — he’s just a tremendous player.”
As for Brady, Belichick was less effusive. The coach took a few questions about Brady’s injury and finally said, “I mean, look, Tom did a great job, and he’s a tough guy. We all know that, all right? But we’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
Brady, 40, said the finger was “bothersome” but added that he didn’t want to sound “arrogant” after completing 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards.
“It’s like when Tiger Woods said, ‘It was my C game,’ and he won the tournament,” Brady said, smiling.
He doesn’t expect the injury to affect him in the Super Bowl.
“I think as soon as I get the stitches out, I’ll be good to go,” he said. “Pretty soon, hopefully midweek, and then I can get normal treatment like I always do and be ready to go.”
The chance to become six-time champion awaits.