FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady magic, for the 54th time.
Led by the incomparable Brady, who was playing with black tape on his right throwing hand to protect a cut that required 12 stitches, the New England Patriots escaped with a 24-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
It marked the 54th time that Brady has engineered a game-winning performance to lead the Patriots to a victory from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. This one was obviously sweet, given the reward: a trip to Super Bowl LII to face the winner of the NFC championship between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Of those 54 winning drives by Brady, 11 have come in the playoffs. Such clutch performances in games with the highest stakes are why many view Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time.
"Tommy’s the best. He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met physically [and] mentally," said receiver Danny Amendola, who was also one of the Patriots' top performers with seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. "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."
Special-teams captain Matthew Slater said the 54 comebacks are reflective of a once-in-a-lifetime player.
“Tom Brady. He’s one of a kind,” said Slater, one of the Patriots’ emotional leaders. “We’ve seen a lot of clutch players over the history of this league. I was raised to appreciate the history of the game and the great players of this league, and it’s really hard to find a guy who has been able to help his team the way he has consistently, playing at the level he’s playing at -- at 40 years of age. It’s Tom Brady.”
Few might have figured the Patriots would need such a comeback, but the Jaguars proved to be a worthy foe and then some.
Add that the Patriots played the second half without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was knocked out of the game by a presumed concussion after absorbing a big hit from safety Barry Church, and the challenge was steep. Brady & Co. trailed 20-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Of course, it's nothing the Patriots haven't conquered before, as they won their previous three playoff games in which they trailed by at least 10 points: Super Bowl LI, Super Bowl XLIX and in the 2014 divisional-round playoffs. Entering Sunday, they were 5-5 since 2001 in playoff games in which they trailed by at least 10 points.
"We got a lot of guys that really fight and never give up," coach Bill Belichick said in the Lamar Hunt Trophy presentation. "They know how to play good, situational football and I’m really proud of these players. They did a great job."
While Brady led the charge, there were no shortage of stellar individual efforts, led by Amendola, who reached up high on the back line of the end zone with 2:48 left and kept his feet in bounds for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. Amendola also had a terrific diving catch earlier on the drive.
Last week, Gronkowski nicknamed him Danny "Playoff" Amendola because he always seems to come through in the clutch.
Coming through in the clutch has long been Brady's M.O. as well, and Sunday added another chapter to his Hall of Fame-level career accomplishments. That he went 26-of-38 for 290 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions just five days after a freak accident at practice produced a major scare was storybook stuff.
Next stop: Minnesota.
"You cherish these moments and opportunities, and I know we’ve had quite a few of them, which we’ve been very blessed to do," said Brady, who will make his eighth Super Bowl appearance. "It’s just been an unbelievable run, and I think everyone should be really proud of what we accomplished. This is a different team than last year’s team.
"It didn’t look good at 2-2 and you just keep showing up to work every day, and we sit in these chairs and Coach Belichick gets up here and he demands a lot out of us and he tries to get the most out of us every day. It’s not always great. Sometimes it’s pretty average and then you’re just trying to get better and better and get to the point where you can make the fourth quarter of a game and try to play well enough to get yourself into the next one.
"So, just proud of our team, proud of what we accomplished. It’s pretty amazing and proud of this team, great leadership and it’s just been a great year. It’d be really great if we take care of business in a couple weeks."