FOXBOROUGH, Mass. | No matter what the Jaguars say this week or later in the off-season or when they convene for the 2018 season, it will not hide the truth.
How the Jaguars lost Sunday’s AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots will never leave them.
Up 10 points with 12 minutes remaining and up three points with five minutes left, a Jaguars team that talked all season about “finishing,” was unable to close out a Patriots team that majors in postseason comebacks.
And now the Jaguars have eight months to think about it.
New England quarterback Tom Brady threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to receiver Danny Amendola (nine yards with 8:44 left, four yards with 2:48 left) to lift the Patriots to a 24-20 win.
The Jaguars (12-6) were denied their first Super Bowl appearance and dropped to 0-3 in AFC title games.
A great ride for the Jaguars? Absolutely. But that will be addressed when the players clean out their lockers and coach Doug Marrone wraps up the season on Monday.
But also a great collapse? No doubt. That is why the pain cut so deep in the post-game locker room while the hum of the Gillette Stadium crowd celebrating the trophy presentation seeped through the walls.
“It’s tough. It stings. It hurts,” strong safety Barry Church said. “All wrapped into one. Pretty bad to know we were this close. The closer you get to the Super Bowl, the more it hurts when you lose. Knowing we were that close to being AFC champs and possibly Super Bowl champs, that stings.”
Tough: The Jaguars did so many good things to build leads of 14-3 (second quarter) and 20-10 (fourth quarter). They played turnover-free for the third straight game and had scoring drives of 76 and 77 yards to build an 11-point lead.
Sting: The Jaguars’ final four drives finished punt, punt, punt and a failed fourth down. The league’s top rushing offense gained no traction when it needed to the most (three yards on four carries in the fourth quarter) and the league’s top-ranked pass defense allowed 290 passing yards.
Hurt: Teams not named the Patriots don’t make a habit of reaching the cusp of the Super Bowl. Heck, it took the Jaguars 18 years to return to this stage. It may not happen next year. It may not happen for the next five years.
“You just hurt inside,” coach Doug Marrone said. “I’m hurting. The coaches are hurting. The players are obviously hurting.”
In a game so close and so important, turning points are plentiful, but one was obvious.
Leading 20-10, the Jaguars forced New England into a third-and-18 from the Patriots 25 with 10:49 remaining.
A stop and the Jaguars were one step closer to Minneapolis.
But Amendola, starting from the left slot, ran over the middle and caught Brady’s 21-yard pass just as free safety Tashaun Gipson was arriving. During the regular season, the Jaguars did not allow a third down conversion of longer than 16 yards.
“That play was probably a change point,” Church said. “We were pretty much dominating the game until that play. It just shows the margin for error in this game is so small.”
Gipson was less than 100 percent because of a toe injury sustained in last week’s win at Pittsburgh. Does a healthy Gipson make the play?
“I would never make that excuse,” Gipson said. “But if we could re-run that play, nine times out of 10, I make that play. … That play gave them the momentum.”
The Patriots closed to within 20-17 four plays later, but they punted on their next possession. The Jaguars went three-and-out and New England got it back at the Jaguars’ 30 with 4:58 remaining and needed only five plays to take its first lead since 3-0. The Jaguars reached New England territory before giving it up on downs with 1:47 remaining.
“At the end of the day, we had them right where we wanted and we let it get away,” Gipson said.
Did they ever have the Patriots on the figurative ropes.
Brady was playing four days after gashing his right (throwing) hand in practice and needing a reported 10 stiches.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was lost in the second quarter with a head injury.
And New England’s run game was non-existent – 2.4 yards per carry, which combined with the score made the Patriots one-dimensional.
But forcing Brady (26 of 38) to pass is asking for trouble.
“He’s a legend for a reason,” Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said.
The legend celebrated amid the confetti on a makeshift stage while the Jaguars trudged off the field. Had the Jaguars won, their trophy presentation would have taken place inside their locker room.
And what a celebration it would have been for this team, this coaching staff and, 1,100 miles to the south, a starving fan base who had equal parts rode out the last decade of futility and re-discovered the local team halfway through the season.
Instead, the Jaguars will lament a coughed-up lead and a chance-of-a-lifetime squandered.
“Can’t even explain it,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said of the post-game emotions. “We had our opportunities but they made more plays. That’s it. That’s this league.”
Said Church: “It’s going to stay with us until we hopefully get over the hump and make it to the Bowl.”