PITTSBURGH -- If this is the Blake Bortles that Jacksonville is going to get in the AFC Championship Game, then this team really is on the verge of something special. The Jaguars know their stellar defense is going to be amped when facing the New England Patriots next Sunday. They're also going to keep relying on that power running attack for as much as they possibly can. What Jacksonville didn't really know until Sunday is whether Bortles could elevate his game in the postseason, which is a question that is much easier to answer after the Jagauars' 45-42 AFC divisional playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This isn't to suggest that Bortles was the only reason Jacksonville won on Sunday. It's only to say his play was a revelation, the kind of effort that provides critical confidence for a young quarterback and a rapidly maturing team. In completing 14 of 24 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown (plus 35 rushing yards on five carries), Bortles did exactly what he was supposed to do for a blue-collar team built on defense and a power running game. He made just enough plays to help the Jaguars win while also avoiding the mistakes that have led to him being tagged as the weak link in the Jaguars' championship aspirations.
It wasn't so much a breakout effort as it was a breakthrough performance. The end result is that Jacksonville stunned the Steelers in Heinz Field for the second time this season, while also securing a date in the conference title game with New England.
"I'm just happy to win," said Bortles, when asked if he felt vindicated by his play against Pittsburgh. "I have no animosity towards anybody who ever said anything. To be able to come here with this team, I'm happy to be able to continue to play for another week. There's a lot of guys sitting at home on the couch wishing they could play. I know in past years, I wished I could've had another opportunity to keep playing."
It's important to focus on Bortles after this game because he is the wild card in all of Jacksonville's dreams. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has spent his entire career demoralizing young quarterbacks in their first playoff appearances against New England. Just ask somebody like Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck what it was like to face New England in their first AFC title game. They all left with devastating losses and plenty of questions about what they'd have to do to overcome that challenge the next time.
One thing we already know about Belichick is that he's not going to let the Jaguars play to their strengths. So the idea of rookie running back Leonard Fournette doing what he did against Pittsburgh -- rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries -- doesn't make much sense. The Patriots are going to make Bortles beat them on offense, especially since he passed for just 87 yards in Jacksonville's wild-card win over Buffalo one week ago. All he has to do is keep playing with the same efficiency that brought him so much success on Sunday.
Yes, the Jaguars gained plenty of much-needed confidence by jumping out to a 28-7 lead. It's also true that they benefitted from two key defensive turnovers, an interception by linebacker Myles Jack that set up an 18-yard scoring run by Fournette and a 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Telvin Smith. But the Jaguars also needed Bortles to step up after Pittsburgh stormed back in the second half to make this game close. Let's not forget that the Steelers generated 545 total yards (including 469 passing yards by Roethlisberger) and converted four of six fourth-down attempts, three of which resulted in touchdowns.
That Jaguars might have lost this game given how often Pittsburgh was scoring in the second half. They didn't because Bortles kept propelling his offense to the end zone. His first huge play came early in the fourth quarter, when he completed a 45-yard strike to wide receiver Keelan Cole that led to a 3-yard touchdown run by Fournette. Bortles used a play-action fake on Jacksonville's next possession to sting the Steelers again, this time with a 14-yard touchdown pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon (Bortles also hit running back T.J. Yeldon for a 30-yard gain on a key third-down play in that drive).
Both of those scores helped Jacksonville stretch its lead to 14 points and put more pressure on the Steelers to keep pressing.
"The way our defense has played all year, there haven't been many games where we've had to go back out and score again," Bortles said. "They've been incredible, and this was a tough task. There are a bunch of good players on the other side of that ball. But we felt comfortable that we could put up points. Obviously, Telvin's touchdown helped us out but I thought everybody -- from the guys up front to the backs and receivers to the tight ends -- there was an overall good performance offensively to continue to score and give our defense a little bit of space."
"I've said it before and all the guys who cover [Bortles] know he's as competitive as hell," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said. "He's doing everything he has to do. He was able to run for yardage. He was able to throw the football and put us in good situations. The second touchdown (Fournette's 18-yard run in the first quarter), he makes a great check and we run the play. There were a lot of good things going on in the game that he did a heck of a job with."
The irony here is that Marrone was one of the most notable people to question Bortles this season. That happened back during training camp, when Bortles was playing so poorly that Marrone allowed backup Chad Henne to compete for the job after Jacksonville suffered a 12-8 preseason loss to Tampa Bay. At the time, Marrone famously stated that he was "looking for someone that's going to lead this offense." It was a crucial juncture in what had been a rocky road for a quarterback who had been the third overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Bortles managed to keep his job, but he's mainly been known for his lows instead of his highs. The same player who showed substantial promise in his second season became an easy punching bag for fans frustrated by Jacksonville's constant losing. It didn't help that Bortles struggled with consistency. The best three-game stretch he enjoyed this season was impressive (he completed 71.4 percent of his passes with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in wins over the Colts, Seahawks and Texans), but then he followed that with deflating efforts in consecutive losses to the 49ers and Titans (when Bortles completed just 56 percent of his throws with two scores and five interceptions).
"Blake Bortles has always been criticized," Fournette said after Sunday's win. "It is different now. He has guys that have his back, especially me. I don't care what anyone says. They aren't out there with us. I will defend my brother, no matter what."
"I've said it a bunch all year long," Bortles said. "I couldn't care less what anyone in the world says about me. I enjoy going to work every day with those guys in that locker room and the coaching staff. I enjoy everything we do, and this is the type of thing that you dream of -- to get opportunities to play in games like this."
Bortles has yet another chance to compete in a big game. The Jaguars have reached the point where nobody should be surprised by their success, largely because their defense has dominated all year. It was apparent early in Sunday's game that Jacksonville was more than ready to deal with a Pittsburgh team they beat 30-9 back in Week 5. As several Jaguars players said, they weren't intimidated because they'd already learned what it takes to win at Heinz Field.
Playing the Patriots on their home turf will be a different matter. New England has won five Super Bowls with Belichick and Tom Brady working together, and they'd surely love to claim a sixth. Of course, they already know their quarterback is going to be on his game from the moment that AFC Championship Game kicks off. The bigger question, after what we saw Sunday, is whether Jacksonville's signal-caller will be able to stay on his.