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Jaguars collapse seals Patriots’ 10th trip to Super Bowl

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) 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 9+-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.

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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.”

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The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

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Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton