It all became clear as the New England Patriots were driving for the touchdown that would send them to the Super Bowl for the eleventy-billionth time in the last 52 years. All week, there was a discussion about how Tom Brady could have cut his hand on a handoff drill, assuming that the team had not signed Edward Scissorhands off someone’s practice squad as a back-up running back. What became obvious is that Brady actually cut his hand by accident on the small boning knife he keeps in that pouch in his jersey.
You know what else you can do with a boning knife in your football jersey?
You can deflate a football. It’s all connected, I tell you.
We are through the looking glass here, people!
However, the actual cover story—what they want you to believe—is far more prosaic. A handoff went bad and Brady’s thumb got wrenched backwards so hard that the skin split for about 12 stitches worth. Of course, he then came out and hit his first seven passes. Of course, with 2:48 left in the game, and the Patriots losing to Jacksonville, 20–17, Brady found Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone. Amendola caught the high pass and did the foot-drag thing for the winning touchdown, and New England was back in the Big Luxury Car Commercial for the 10th time in the team’s history and the third time in the past four years.
“You never feel safe,” said Jacksonville’s Jarrod Wilson. “They have been in the AFC Championship game seven years straight. You have to play a damn near perfect game to beat them.”
The Jaguars were not perfect, but they were a damn sight better than people thought they were going to be. Blake Bortles ran a rollout, dink-and-dunk passing game almost to perfection, and Leonard Fournette and Corey Grant gave him just enough of a running game that the Jaguars led the game from the 14-minute mark of the second quarter until Brady unlimbered his bionic hand and got the ball to Amendola. “We fought hard,” said Bill Belichick, “in all three phases of the game.”
‘All Three Phases of the Game’ has become a kind of punchline around Foxborough. It is a big chunk of rhetorical boilerplate that Belichick uncrates on those occasions when he doesn’t have a lot to say and wants to say even less than that, which generally are days ending in “day.” It’s not that he is insincere. He really means it. There is no quicker way to Belichick’s football heart—and no surer way to a semi-permanent roster spot in New England—than to volunteer enthusiastically for the carnage that is special-teams play.
“Coach Belichick has always invested a lot of time, and draft picks, and roster spots in the kicking game,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots special-teams captain. “It’s times like this that you see the value of it. Fortunately, we played very well tonight. You can see how he built his roster that way.”
Which brings us to the New England punter, a fifth-year pro out of Louisiana Tech named Ryan Allen. Outside of Brady and his animatronic metacarpals, and possibly Amendola, there was nobody more vital to the Patriots comeback than Allen. “You got two defenses playing really well,” said Slater. “So, field position became critical in the game. We tried to execute as best we could.”
What evolved was an old-fashioned 1930-ish punting duel. You can almost envision Belichick, in his coach’s lair, suiting up in his official game-worn Decatur Staleys jersey, pouring some chips into an upturned leather helmet thick with human bite-marks, and hauling out some game film from the last year of the Hoover Administration while he blows the dust off an old hand-cranked Keystone movie projector. Ask your great-grandparents, kids. Once upon a time, a team would punt on any down, trying to catch the opposition unawares and pinning the opposition down near its own goal line.
Punting as a specialty is a relatively new phenomenon. When the Kansas City Chiefs hired Jerrel Wilson strictly to punt for them, football purists howled. Up until then, it often was the job of the backup quarterback; Steve Spurrier used to punt for San Francisco when he was backing up John Brodie. Gradually, punting became generational, like quarterbacking in the Manning clan. Former Steeler punter Craig Colquitt has two sons and a nephew punting professionally now. And now, the position is evolving further as it has become the fashion to bring in retired players from Australian Rules football, where the “punting” often is done on the fly.
(There even once was something called the “quick kick,” and you will never convince me that the possibility of trying one didn’t cross Belichick’s mind at some point in the second half on Sunday. For the record, the last quick kick by a Patriot was by Tom Brady with New England up by 35 points in a 2012 playoff game against Denver. It frustrated the Broncos so much that defensive lineman Von Miller went upside Brady’s head after the play. Also for the record, former Eagles and Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham tried 20 of them in his career, so it’s not so much a lost art as a forgotten one, like glass-blowing or romantic comedies. I miss all of them.)
“In a game like this,” Belichick said, “I don’t know how many times we punted [six], but it was more than we wanted to. Ryan made a lot of big plays for us. He had some good punts when we were backed up and we needed the field position and then we had some plus-50 punts in the second half that he executed really well on which we were able to maintain the field position that we had. It was key for us.”
Allen’s star turn came as the game turned around on itself late in the third quarter and into the fourth. On consecutive New England possessions, Allen pinned the Jaguars on their nine- and 10-yard lines, respectively. And, with 5:53 remaining in the game, Allen dropped one on the Jacksonville 10 again. The Jaguars failed to gain a yard in three tries and, punting from his own end zone, Jacksonville’s Brad Nortman kicked the ball to Amendola, who returned it 20 yards to set New England up at the Jaguars’ 30-yard line, whence the Patriots began their game-winning drive. Allen had beaten Nortman in a punter’s duel when it mattered. Pop Warner would’ve kissed him.
“Shoot, it’s all a matter of the opportunities in front of you,” Allen said. “Whether you’re in your own territory and punting deep, or trying to drop it in there. You never know what you’re going to get. That was our job, and we were happy we could help the defense out, but the defense has to do something with it, and that’s complementary football right there.
“You just stay in your progressions. As the offense moves down the field, you’re on the sidelines, and you’re getting kind of closer, and you know that you’re going to be approaching it differently.”
In a macro sense, New England’s emphasis on special teams play, and on its component parts like punting, is a piece of the manic attention to detail that has been a hallmark of this team’s lordly run through the 21st century. That attention to detail also is why it is fatal to leave the Patriots even the slightest shaft of daylight to get back in the game.
“The more and more we were on the field, the more and more that the game goes further, that’s when we’re at our best,” said New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “We prepare harder than anybody. We practice harder, so when that fourth quarter comes, we know what time it is and we step up. So we strapped up. Offense did their thing, defense did their thing and special teams just did a great job, and so it showed.”
Given all that’s gone on the last couple of weeks, there’s a kind of nostalgia hanging around the New England franchise during this latest run to the last game of the year. There really is a sense of closure closing in around the whole operation while, at the same time, the success on the field has seemed so seamless, from the upset in New Orleans to the comeback against Atlanta to whatever comes next in Minneapolis. It’s going to be a long, lingering twilight, and there’s no telling what’s we’re all going to see in it.