The Jacksonville Jaguars were ready to do the nearly impossible, beating the the lion in the lion's den. They were the faster team to start the AFC championship game. The more physical team. The one with more swagger.
And even before Rob Gronkowski was knocked out with a head injury, the Jaguars had a chance to bury the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
They upstart Jaguars, who were winning a staring contest against Tom Brady in a game almost no one could picture they being in only a few months ago, were up 14-3 and ready to keep piling on. Blake Bortles had gone from goat to nearly upstaging the GOAT, Brady.
And that's when it all — a miracle season in the making — fell apart. That was the start of the Patriots making yet another Super Bowl.
Late in the second quarter, after the Jaguars sacked Brady on 3rd-and-10, they got the ball back with a little more than five minutes remaining until halftime. They flipped the field with a gorgeous throw from Bortles to Keelan Cole for 26 yards.
The second-worst penalty on the drive (foreshadowing) set them behind the sticks, but the Jaguars faced a 3rd-and-7 from the New England 44, and they appeared to get it when Bortles hit Marcedes Lewis in the flat after he beat Patrick Chung in coverage.
But ... delay of game. Replays showed the play clock hitting zero right before the snap got off. That was a severe gut shot right there. And it might have tilted the game in New England's favor.
Don't think a 5-yard penalty on a non-scoring play in the second quarter can change the momentum in a game involving the Patriots? We're guessing you haven't spent much time watching them these past 18 years.
The Jaguars would have been in field-goal range at the worst had the play stood, as kicker Josh Lambo later would prove with field-goal makes of 54 and 43 yards. Not to be forgotten, the Jaguars were getting the ball first to start the third quarter, and it looked like they could have out-Patriots the Patriots in the game flow.
But the penalty knocked the Jaguars out of range, and Bortles would be sacked on the third-down redo. Predictably enough, even as Gronk would be knocked out for the game on the ensuing drive, the Patriots would score.
The penalty would be at least a 10-point swing ... and maybe more.
The Jaguars would increase the lead from 14-10 to 20-10 with field goals on two of their first three drives of the second half. And it took the Gronk-less Patriots a few drives to settle down. They would cross midfield twice in the third quarter and punt on fourth down despite needing only 4 and 2 yards to convert.
The Patriots never blinked. They didn't lose their cool when Dion Lewis fumbled following what could have been a field-flipping double pass — Brady to Danny Amendola back to Lewis — before Myles Jack made a brilliant strip. The Patriots didn't flinch when the Jaguars came out with a bizarre punt formation; they held their water and did not call one of their precious timeouts.
And Brady and Amendola didn't stop, as they combined for a brilliant fourth quarter. They connected on two TD passes to take the lead. Doing so without Gronkowski made it all the more unreal.
Let us make it clear: Saying the Jaguars choked would be foolish and unfair. But did they crack? That's not a stretch at all. They committed six penalties (for 98 yards) to the Patriots' one penalty, and 57 yards worth of those infractions came in the final four mintues of the first half. That was the first major turning point.
Sure, the Patriots don't win this game without a stout second-half defense (165 yards, eight first downs and six points allowed after halftime), without Brady making some brilliant throws and without the heroics of Amendola and Brandin Cooks (100 yards receiving and 64 yards worth of pass-interference calls drawn).
But they most certainly don't even get within range of accomplishing all of that if the Jaguars can run down more first-half clock and tack on more first-half points. That's when the miracle Jaguars' run started ending.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the most obvious momentum changer of the second half. It was Brady hitting Amendola for 21 yards on 3rd-and-18, with the Patriots trailing by 10. The Jaguars certainly still could have won had they stopped that play from happening. That said, the first flap of the butterfly wing that set the whole second-half chaos into motion started much earlier: with one silly mistake at a crucial time.
We've seen this type of collapse by a Patriots opponent before, most memorably in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. This was no 28-3 comeback in the final 21 minutes. But comebacks sometimes can't be measured simply in points and the clock, the Patriots bested maybe the NFL's best defense — without their top weapon by a long shot — by scoring 21 points in the final 31 minutes of the game.
And we can trace it back to one little infraction when the Jaguars had the ball. Instead of piling on to their lead, they opened the door for Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots to steal their souls.