Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack put his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart as it sank in for him that the Jaguars had fallen just short — just like the Falcons and the Seahawks and the Rams and so many other Patriots opponents had before.
"Close, man. We were almost there," he said after New England came back to beat Jacksonville 24-20 on Sunday for the franchise's 10th AFC championship.
"On the one hand, we could have won the game. But on the other, Tom Brady is Tom Brady," Jack said. "We got Tom Bradyed again."
Entering the game as a 9½-point underdog, the Jaguars opened a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter against the defending Super Bowl champions. No team had ever rallied from a double-digit, fourth quarter in the AFC title game.
But then, no team has Bill Belichick on the sideline, Brady lining up behind the center and a resume full of big-game comebacks going back to their first Super Bowl win 16 years ago.
"That's what those guys do, and they do it very well," Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. "And that's why they're moving on."
Blake Bortles completed 23 of 36 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown, Leonard Fournette ran for 76 yards and a touchdown and Allen Hurns had six catches for 80 yards for Jacksonville (12-7).
Bortles, who had never won a playoff game before this month, had outplayed Brady through three quarters, with a quarterback rating of 121.9 to the five-time NFL champion's 87.5.
But Bortles said he didn't allow himself to start thinking about making it to the Super Bowl.
"I don't think you can, especially when playing Tom Brady and the Patriots," he said. "Because they're going to score. They're going to find a way to put pressure on you."
Jacksonville took a 20-10 lead on Josh Lambo's field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter. Jack then forced the only turnover of the game — ripping the ball from Dion Lewis' hands after a 20-yard reception that would have put the Patriots at the Jaguars 33.
Jacksonville went three-and-out, but then Marcell Dareus sacked Brady. On third-and-18 from the New England 25, Brady hit Danny Amendola for 21 yards. On the next play, Brady handed off to James White, who pitched it back to the quarterback, and he lofted a pass over Jack to seldom-used receiver Phillip Dorsett for 31 yards and his only catch of the game.
Three plays later, Amendola scampered into the end zone on the first of his two fourth-quarter touchdown catches that sent New England to its eighth Super Bowl since Brady and Belichick teamed up in Foxborough.
"We were getting three-and-outs, three-and-outs, three-and-outs. And then they just found it," Jack said. "They don't stop playing until the game is over."
Jacksonville punted on its next two possessions, and Amendola returned the second for 20 yards to give New England the ball at the Jaguars 30-yard line, down 20-17, with just under five minutes remaining. Brady completed two passes to get the ball inside the 10, scrambled for 2 more and then found Amendola at the back of the end zone for the game-winner.
"Man, it hurts. It stings a lot," said defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who sought out Brady on the field after the game to congratulate him. "He's the best player to ever play the game. I've got so must respect for him ... I wanted to make sure he knew it."
For the Jaguars, who went 3-13 last season, the trip to the conference title game was a stepping stone that few expected when the season started.
"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," said Bortles, who had never won a postseason game before this month.
"It's been an awesome season. I think it's been a lot of fun despite what happened today," he said. "It's tough to try to enjoy it right now, but I'm sure that at some point we'll be able to reflect and think about all the good things that happened."