Foxborough, Mass. — So many times during the Patriots' run of success over the past two decades, the defense was watching as Tom Brady sealed another victory.
In Sunday's 24-20 AFC championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the defense got its chance to secure the Patriots' record 10th Super Bowl appearance.
Jacksonville entered the game with the best red-zone scoring percentage in NFL, scoring touchdowns on 67.9 percent of trips this season (40 on 56 drives). The Jaguars scored touchdowns on both of their red-zone trips in the first half, as quarterback Blake Bortles had his way with short and intermediate routes to pile up first downs.
It added up to a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead, and left Gillette Stadium in stunned silence as New England's hopes of getting a chance to defend its Super Bowl title seemed to be dwindling.
But Jacksonville got conservative over the final 30 minutes, much like the Atlanta Falcons did with 28-3 lead in last year's Super Bowl collapse against New England. The Patriots seized on it and the Jaguars' offense never got closer than the Patriots' 25 in the second half.
"We put ourselves in position to come back and just keep fighting," defensive end Tray Flowers said. "We knew they were going to run the ball, but we kept fighting and it was a fourth-quarter game."
The most telling example came after the Patriots took their final lead of the game on Danny Amendola's 4-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone.
The Jaguars initially went back to their success in the first half, starting the drive with an 8-yard completion from Bortles to Marqise Lee, followed by a 29-yard pass to Dede Westbrook to set Jacksonville up on New England's 38.
But the Patriots reset, and after an incompletion by Bortles on first down, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and James Harrison got to Bortles for a sack, prying the ball loose. Jaguars tackle Cam Robinson recovered the fumble, but it set up a third-and-19.
New England kept the pressure on Bortles and he could only manage a 4-yard completion to James O'Shaughnessy.
"They had maybe one or two plays that we talk about this time of year," safety Devin McCourty said. "Sixteen games, a play or two may have success, but (Patriots defensive coordinator) Matt (Patricia) said it best: It wasn't a big adjustment that you needed to do; it was just needing to play aggressively."
Patricia is the presumed front-runner for the Detroit Lions' head coaching job.
With Jacksonville facing fourth-and-15 on its 43, cornerback Stephon Gilmore reached in front of Bortles' pass to O'Shaughnessy to force a turnover on downs.
It was a special moment for Gilmore, who battled injuries and inconsistent play after signing a five-year, $65 million contract in the offseason.
"It wasn't the biggest play I've made, but it was definitely one of the most important," he said. "To come from where I came from last year, and be a part of this great team ... I love it and that's why I decided to come here."
For Bortles, it was his first loss this season when he didn't commit a turnover. He was previously 8-0.
"We had a two-minute drive at the end of the game to win the AFC championship, so there's not a whole lot more you can ask for than that," Bortles said. "You've got to take advantage of that and find a way to win the game."
And now the Patriots will have a chance at their sixth Super Bowl trophy, which would tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most ever.
McCourty said the defense is invigorated by the opportunity.
"This team is battle-tested," McCourty said. "You go through ups and downs. You go through adversity. ... We just keep giving ourselves a chance to win, and the hard work pays off."