James Harrison, Patriots, defense
James Harrison and Tom Brady share a moment after the AFC title game victory. Getty Images

The Patriots (15-3) advanced to Super Bowl 52 with a heart-stopping 24-20 win over the more than game Jaguars (12-7) on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. As always, quarterback Tom Brady (26 for 38, 290 yards, 2 TDs) will get most of the headlines but down the stretch, New England’s much-maligned defense made some huge stops. Ironically, two of the guys turning in the biggest plays defensively for the Patriots were ageless linebacker James Harrison (3 solo tackles, 1 QB hit) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (5 solo tackles, 2 passes defensed) who was a bust for much of his first season in Foxborough. Jacksonville raced out to a 14-3 lead in the second quarter but New England closed in typical fashion, outscoring them 14-3 in the pivotal fourth quarter to send them to their eighth Super Bowl under Brady (10th overall as a franchise) and peerless head coach Bill Belichick.

 

Credit to the Jags and quarterback Blake Bortles (23 for 36, 293 yards, 1 TD) who played about as well as they possibly could have given the circumstances. In many ways, it is probably surprising on the surface that they lost (at least when you look at the box score) since the only turnover in the entire contest was a Dion Lewis (34 yards rushing, 32 yards receiving) fumble early in the fourth quarter.  Jacksonville had 30 more total yards than New England (374-344) and they converted way more on third down (6 for 15) than the Patriots did (3 for 12). They key for the New England defense is that when it really mattered in the fourth, they were able to get off the field-something which they couldn’t do for much of the previous three quarters.

 

Bortles was only sacked three times for a loss of 12 yards but they were timely ones by linebacker Kyle Van Noy (5 solo tackles, 1 pass defensed), defensive end Lawrence Guy (4 solo tackles, 1 QB hit) and defensive tackle Adam Butler. In the latter part of Harrison’s NFL career, he’s been deployed more when it’s late in the game to pressure the quarterback. That seemed to be how it went on Sunday as well or at least that’s when he showed up most with some hurries of Bortles and strong tackles.

 

Jacksonville also ran 10 more plays than New England (71-61) but they racked up five more penalties (6-1) for 88 more yards (98-10). Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (who’s said to be off to Detroit soon to be their head coach) kept his group focused though as the Patriots didn’t let the slow start hinder them as they rallied to put up 21 points and only allow a pair of long Josh Lambo field goals in the second half (54 and 43 yards). The Pats also converted their only fourth down attempt and on the other side, Gilmore deflected the ball away from Bortles’ intended receiver Dede Westbrook on fourth and 15 with 1:53 left in regulation on Jacksonville’s only fourth down attempt. The Jags would never get the ball back as Lewis ran for 18 yards on 3rd and 9, sending his team to Minnesota in two Sundays-site of the Super Bowl-vs. either Philadelphia or Minnesota.