- - Sunday, January 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

You may hate the New England Patriots. You may despise them. You may be sick of them.

But you will respect them.

The Patriots, down 10 points in the fourth quarter to a tough Jacksonville Jaguars team, with their star receiver, Rob Gronkowski, out with a concussion and their quarterback, Tom Brady, with a dozen stitches in his throwing hand, won their eighth AFC championship in the Brady and coach Bill Belichick era with a comeback 24-20 victory.

Did I mention the quarterback is 40 years old?

That 40-year-old quarterback will have a chance to beat back the clock one more time and add a sixth Super Bowl ring to his hands — both the cut right one and the healthy left one — on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis when they face the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, who stunningly steamrolled over the favored Minnesota Vikings 38-7 Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, in Super Bowl 52.

The Patriots are like a great fighter during the championship rounds — in this case, the fourth quarter. After being dominated by the Jaguars for much of the game in Foxboro, Brady (26 of 38 for 290 yards and two touchdowns) had a passer rating of 136.3 in the quarter that counts.

Here were the knockout punches Brady and the Patriots landed in that fourth quarter, down 20-10 — a nine-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola with more just over eight minutes left in the game, and then the game-winning four-yard scoring pass to Amendola with 2:48 remaining.

If the Patriots were down 24-20 with the 2:48 left on the clock, you would figure the odds were good Brady would lead them back. Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles, who played well (23 for 36 for 293 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions) and probably sealed his future for next year in Jacksonville, isn’t Tom Brady.

There may not be a comparable.

That is the greatness of Brady, Belichick and the Patriots — you see it coming. You expect it. And there’s usually nothing you can do to stop it.

Just ask Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who tweeted after the win, “Did anyone ever doubt that was going to happen? Brady is the G.O.A.T.” Harper may be a Dallas Cowboys fan, but Brady is an Under Armour teammate.

There are so many ways to measure the greatness of the Patriots. Consider this — here’s the list of AFC quarterbacks who have played in the Super Bowl in the last 16 years: Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Brady. That’s it.

They do so many things right that don’t show up in the box score. When Amendola fielded a punt at midfield late in the fourth quarter, his team down 20-17, he waved everyone off as if he was going to signal a fair catch — but he never did, and returned it 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30, putting his team in position for what would soon be the game-winning touchdown.

And for those who are convinced the NFL does everything it can to help the Patriots, remember when the league turned itself upside down to try to destroy the franchise — and Brady, the NFL’s No. 1 star — over deflated footballs. They have few friends at NFL headquarters.

Perhaps it may take the right kind of Cinderella to upset Brady and the Patriots — maybe Nick Foles, a backup quarterback who was riding the bench in Philadelphia until Eagles superstar quarterback and MVP candidate Carson Wentz went down with torn knee ligaments on Dec. 10. Since then, Foles has been caretaking the position, doing just enough not to lose while the Eagles defense carried the team to the NFC title game.

Sunday night, Foles took care of the Minnesota Vikings. He played the game of his career, completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards, three touchdown and no interceptions, shocking a vaunted Vikings defense that had hoped to play on its home field — U.S. Bank Stadium — in Minneapolis, hosting the Super Bowl.

That Minnesota defense found itself on its heels nearly the entire game, down 24-7 at halftime. Foles, who had been limited to a conservative play book since taking over for Wentz, broke free, with four of his completions going for 35 yards or more. He was 10 for 11 on third down passes.

Unlike the Patriots, the Eagles have plenty of space for Super Bowl trophies and rings. While Philadelphia has won three NFL championships, all came before the Super Bowl era — 1948, 1949 and 1960 — they are the only team in the NFC East without a Super Bowl title. This will be their third trip to the Super Bowl – losing to the Oakland Raiders 24-14 in 1980 and to the PatriotsBrady and Belichick — 24-21 in 2004.

Tom Brady was 26 years old then.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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