FOXBORO, Mass. — The Jacksonville Jaguars had all the momentum in the first half of the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, but it seemed to disappear in two minutes.
Trailing 14-3, the Patriots got the ball back at their own 15-yard line with just over two minutes left. After moving the ball near midfield, Tom Brady threw a ball up the seam intended for Rob Gronkowski. As the star tight end stretched for the ball, Jaguars safety Barry Church met him there with his head/shoulder and jarred the ball free, appearing to force a second-and-10.
But the officials deemed that Church led with his head, and flagged him for an unnecessary roughness penalty, giving the Patriots a first down at the Jags’ 45-yard line.
New England would score two plays later to cut the lead to 14-10 at the break. That score appeared to shift momentum in the Patriots’ favor, as Brady engineered a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback, hitting Danny Amendola for two touchdowns to give New England a 24-20 win.
After the game, Church noted that it’s a difficult call, but he was “just trying to play football.”
“I just tried to dislodge the ball,” Church said. “He’s a big dude and I was trying to dislodge the ball, but I guess they felt it was too high of a hit. I hope he’s healthy. I know he didn’t come back, so I hope he’s alright. It was a tough call, but you have to go with what they call. It’s the toughest play in football. If you go low for the knee, you’re considered a dirty player, and if you go high, they throw the flag at you.
“It was a bang-bang play and I was just trying to play football. I tried to lead with my shoulder.”
The veteran safety, however, was quick to not blame the officials for Jacksonville’s loss.
“It was definitely a momentum changer,” Church said. “If we would have went into the half 14-3 we would have felt that we had a better chance, but they made plays. We had two crucial penalties that — me, unnecessary roughness, whatever was called, and the pass interference, they swayed the game a bit. But, you know, can’t blame the refs. Tom Brady drove the field twice on us in the fourth quarter, so that’s what changed the game.”
Gronkowski left the game after the hit and did not return, as he was ruled out with a head injury.
The Patriots will play the winner of the NFC Championship Game in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.