When he handed the ball to Rex Burkhead and felt the pain in his thumb and looked down to see the blood gushing, one thought kept running through Tom Brady’s mind.
Four days before a chance to advance to his eighth Super Bowl, with a chance to add another achievement to his unprecedented legacy, the Patriots quarterback stood there in disbelief.
“Of all the plays, my season can’t end on a handoff in practice,” Brady said. “We’ve come this far, to end on a handoff . . . Never had anything like it. I’ve had a couple crazy injuries, but this was pretty crazy.”
He didn’t know how it would turn out, didn’t even know if he’d be able to play in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.
“I wasn’t quite sure how I was gonna do on Wednesday,” he said. “Wednesday night and Thursday, I wasn’t sure.”
The gash was closed with several stitches — he wouldn’t reveal just how many — and he was able to do some throwing on Friday, so there was guarded optimism.
Sunday brought the clarity he needed. With a piece of black adhesive covering the wound, he trotted onto the field and took his customary spot under center. And then he did what he almost always does: put on a masterful performance just when you think he might be out of miracles. Break the heart of yet another opponent that comes so tantalizingly close to an upset.
With the Jaguars less than 10 minutes away from pulling off a colossal upset of the defending Super Bowl champions, Brady overcame a 10-point deficit with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Danny Amendola for a 24-20 win. The Patriots are in the Super Bowl for the third time in the last four years and the eighth time in Brady’s 17 seasons as the starter.
It’s Patriots-Eagles in Super Bowl LII, thanks to one more magical finish from the maestro. He’s pulling away from his all-time great peers like Secretariat down the stretch.
“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 shrugged off any ill effects from his thumb injury to go 26-for-38 for 290 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
At 40 years of age and coming off a season in which he likely will earn MVP honors, Brady already had gone where no other player has been. And now he has a chance to become the first to win six Super Bowl rings.
The Jaguars looked as if they might deny that opportunity with a splendid effort for most of the game, but as has been the case so often with Brady’s Patriots over the years, they found a way to win.
An eight-play, 85-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter, capped by a short pass that Amendola took in for a 9-yard touchdown, made it 20-17. Two possessions later, Brady finished a 30-yard drive set up by Amendola’s 20-yard punt return. A splendid 4-yard pass to Amendola in the back of the end zone provided the go-ahead score with 2:48 to play.
Injured thumb. No Rob Gronkowski for much of the game after he suffered a concussion. No Julian Edelman for the entire season because of a knee injury.
No worries. Brady is going to Minneapolis for a shot at a sixth ring.
Coach Bill Belichick was impressed with Brady’s performance, although he was stingy with the hyperbole.
“Tom did a great job and he’s a tough guy, we all know that, all right?” Belichick said. “But we’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
All kidding aside . . .
What if you had told Brady when he joined the league in 2000 that he’d be in this position?
“I would have thought you were crazy,” he said. “It’s my life and I’m living it and it feels very natural and normal just because I wake up every day and I feel very much the same as I did when I walked in here 18 years ago. I could never imagine getting the kind of team achievements we’ve had, and I don’t think anyone can take those things away. These are pretty amazing times for all of us.”
Amazing times indeed.
But only because of Brady.
Tom Brady’s 12th AFC Championship Game was one of his best. His numbers in Sunday’s game and in 12 AFC title games (Brady is 8-4 overall):
QB RATING 108.483.9