FOXBOROUGH — All season long, the Patriots defense managed to rise to the challenge in key moments. On Sunday against the Jaguars, the group was put in that position once again: Holding tight to a 24-20 lead with just over two minutes to go, Jacksonville was on the move, in New England territory with all three timeouts left. How would the Patriots respond? Here’s an oral history of the four defensive plays that helped lift New England into the Super Bowl.
The scene: Patriots lead, 24-20, with 2:12 left in regulation. The Jaguars have the ball on the New England 38. Leonard Fournette was lined up to the left of Blake Bortles, and when the ball was snapped, he darted left, and headed for the Jacksonville sideline. Linebacker Marquis Flowers found him, and ran with him down the sideline, all while Bortles was going through his progressions — looking right and then, down the middle of the field. When both of those were closed off, he floated one down the sideline to Fournette, who had a step on Flowers.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia: “With the play (by) Marquis, (he did) a good job with the fundamentals there to take the back. They're obviously a dangerous offense. They had some really good scheme plays and some ability to get the ball out in space and take advantage of some matchups which they were definitely going after. Marquis did a good job of understanding what the situation was. Not all situations are the same, so in that deal, he kind of recognized what it was looking like and where they were trying to go with the ball. So that was good.”
Flowers: “Throughout the whole game, their backs were getting out on coverage against the linebackers and thinking they were creating mismatches. On that play, I was focusing in on Fournette, and it became pretty clear they were thinking pass. I went to look back in the backfield right before the ball was snapped, and it looked like he was going to take off. As he took off, I ran with him. He kind of pushed off — he extended his arm, but I just knew I had to stay with him and make it a tough throw. I just wanted to make Bortles have to make a tough throw. That’s all I was thinking. But one of the things the coaches always work on, from coach (Brian) Flores to coach Patricia, one of the things they always focus on is not to forget about the backs in the passing game. That’s what they like.”
The linebacker reached out -- he swears he knocked it away with his right hand, but it's tough to tell on the replay. If Fournette had made the catch, he would have had no one between him and the end zone.
Flowers: “If he would have completed that, I don’t want to even think about what would have happened.”
It was second and 10 at the 38, and after receiver Keelan Cole went in motion from right to left, Bortles took the shotgun snap with two receivers to his right and two to his left. But in a wake-up-the-echoes burst around the left end, James Harrison blew past Jacksonville left tackle Cam Robinson with a speed move. He was at Bortles in less than four seconds. On the same play, the Patriots also got a superlative effort from Kyle Van Noy, who tossed running back T.J. Yeldon aside and met up with Harrison at the quarterback. This was a textbook example of a play where the Pats took advantage of two guys — Robinson and Yeldon — who were overwhelmed by the moment.
Harrison: “I just got the opportunity to get in there and rush the passer, and I was just blessed to get through.”
Patricia: “The sack, that was a great play for us to really try to get them into some negative situations there and get them off track. Just think it was some good combination of some rush and coverage of those guys doing a good job of executing the rush through the course of the game, doing a good job of studying the opponent and making sure that they knew where they were at, at that point, and just to be able to get some pressure on the quarterback, which they did.”
Now, it’s third and 19 at the New England 47. The Jaguars were money on third down for most of the first three-plus quarters, but had been slowed after posting three, three-and-outs over the last quarter-plus. At this point, you’re not necessarily looking for the first down, but maybe you can pick up 10 yards, and get better field position. Bortles finds tight end James O’Shaughnessy, who leaks out the backfield and hauls in Bortles’ last completion of the night, a floater he gathers in at the Patriots’ 43-yard line. But a really sharp form tackle from cornerback Eric Rowe — who lost his shoe pushing forward as he closed in on O’Shaughnessy — pushed him out of bounds at the 43.
To be honest, if O’Shaughnessy had cut toward the middle of the field instead of the sideline, he might have had a shot at the 35. But he went right instead of left, and that left the Jags with a fourth and 14
Bortles: “We knew we had two shots to try to get the ball down the field or two downs obviously in third and fourth down. The first one – not getting a good chunk. I don’t know I’ll have to look at it, maybe we could have ... we could have got it further down the field.”
Rowe: “We had a Cover 3 called, and I was the curl-flat defender. I knew it was third and 19, so I was sure to get my depth. It was a long way to the sticks. Usually teams, when it's that long, like to run some sort of deep out so I made sure I had my depth. I also had to keep my awareness — I saw Bortles getting rushed. The guys up front got a good rush on him. There was a crosser coming, and I felt like he was just trying to get the ball out, trying to make a play. I can already anticipate it — he was coming to O’Shaughnessy coming across. I made a good break, slipped out of my shoe. I felt it, but I knew I had to keep going. I made sure to play inside out, because, to me, I felt like it was just me and him, and nothing but green space. I knew I had the sideline as my friend, just playing inside out, if he cuts back, he’d just cut back into me. I didn’t care if I was going to get the stiff-arm. I got him out of bounds.”
Rowe was able to utilize the fact that O’Shaughnessy had drifted to the sideline to his advantage.
Rowe: “It was really important. If O’Shaughnessy caught it closer to the hash, I would have had to play it a totally different way. But when I had the sideline, I knew I could play more aggressive, because if he cut it back, he’d just cut it back to me. If he kept going out, I knew he would just have to step out of bounds. Having that allowed me to be a little more aggressive.”
Fourth and 14 at the New England 43, with 1:53 left in regulation. Likely the last gasp for Jacksonville. The Jags opened with three receivers to the left, including Dede Westbrook in the slot, facing Stephen Gilmore. The corners were in tight man coverage off the line, but did have some help behind them, as the Patriots had two-deep safeties in the middle of the field. Bortles held the ball in the pocket, and as he stepped up to throw, Trey Flowers hit him before he released it downfield to Westbrook. The ball initially looked slightly overthrown, but the 6-foot receiver has great length, and went up for it. But Gilmore hung in the air for what seemed like an extra couple of seconds, batting the ball away with the tips of the fingers on his right hand. The ball fell incomplete. No flags. New England regained possession on downs.
Bortles: “The second one was a play we put in this week on fourth down. It was kind of like if we got half – third-and-long or fourth-and-long. In the meantime, it was everything we wanted. Had Dede one on one going across the field. I've got to give him a better ball so he can make the play.”
Westbrook: “I feel like I let the team down on the fourth-down play. I should have made a play on the ball. I consider myself a playmaker, and I didn’t make a play."
Bill Belichick: “We were in a man-to-man coverage. Those over routes can be tough routes against that type of coverage, because the receiver has a lot of space and can kind of run away from the defender. The defender doesn’t really have any leverage. About all the defender can do is keep up with the route, which a lot of times a good throw and a good catch can result in a completion there or undercut it and make it a tougher throw and a tougher play to execute for the quarterback.
“Stephon's got a good feel for that. He's got a lot of experience doing it and he's got a good feel for running with the receiver or trying to undercut the receiver based on the route and the individual skills of the receiver and the quarterback and so forth. I thought he made an outstanding play. He was in really good position and then he's long. He’s got good length and was able to pretty easily reach out – not easily – but I mean, he didn’t have to leave his feet. He had enough length to run and stretch and make the play on the ball. It was just an outstanding play. I thought Stephon played well for us yesterday.”
For Gilmore, the play represented a measure of redemption. The cornerback endured an up-and-down season with what radio analyst Scott Zolak called the play of the year.
Gilmore: “It wasn’t the biggest play I’ve made, but it was definitely one of the most important. I go out there and try to make plays for my teammates. I have great teammates, and my coaches put me in a position to go out there and make plays.”
McCourty: “I thought as a team defensively – we always talk about situational football – we got into that two-minute drive, everyone was zoned in on what we couldn’t give. You could even see on that last play Steph broke up ... he looked at me and I looked at him. We knew we were getting that over route. I tried to hold it off and then get back to the quarterback and give him some time. He got time and broke up the play, a great play.”
Dion Lewis was able to pick up a first down with an 18-yard run, and the game was over. While there were many heroes for New England on the afternoon, the four-play defensive sequence that allowed the Patriots to hang on down the stretch will be remembered as one of the key defensive stands on the way back to another Super Bowl.
Belichick: “That’s what makes a good football team. That’s what a team is – everybody pulling their weight, everybody doing their job. When your number comes up, stepping out there and doing what’s right for the team, making the plays that the team needs you to make.”