JACKSONVILLE -- Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles likely earned more than just a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and an opportunity to play in the AFC Championship game next Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Bortles likely earned himself a lucrative multi-year, mega-million dollar contract as well.
The fourth-year Jaguars quarterback's future with the franchise was very much up in the air at the start of the season, especially when HEAD coach Doug Marrone put the starting job up for grabs during the preseason. But Bortles survived that battle with backup Chad Henne and has gone on to record his best all-around season. He topped the 60-percent pass completion mark for the first time in his four years and his 13 interceptions are a career low. He had 10 games this year in which he did not throw a pick and the Jaguars were a perfect 10-0 in those games. He only had a combined 13 such games in his first three seasons. He had five games in which he posted a passer rating of higher than 119 compared to a total of three such games in his three previous seasons.
And yet, Bortles has continued to be subjected to harsh comments and criticism from opposing players and national media reps throughout the 2017 season. On Sunday, he silenced a number of his critics. He played a magnificent game in spite of all the negative talk that was cast his direction in the week leading up to the rematch with the Steelers. He's put up better numbers than his 14-of-26 passing for 214 yards and one touchdown, but his calm demeanor and poise in the fourth quarter when the Jaguars needed it most, was a game-saver for Jacksonville.
In the final 15 minutes, Bortles completed 5-of-7 passes for 118 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 113.1. And yet when Bortles was asked afterward if he felt vindicated and if he wanted to take his shot back at his critics, he instead took the high road.
"I've said it a bunch all year long. I really don't care. I couldn't care less what anyone in the world says about me," Bortles said. "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. To be able to come here and do that against a team like Pittsburgh, it will never change for me. Everybody is in the NFL here. It's the highest level of football there is in the world. It's tough to say that someone is not a good player or is trash. Everybody is a professional football player and is able to do it for a living. I think I will always be respectful of everyone we play.
"I'm just happy to win. I have no animosity against anyone who said anything. I'm happy to be able to come here and do this with this team. There are a lot of guys home on the couch watching this. I'm sure they are wishing that they could play. I know in years past I have been. So, having the opportunity to be able to continue to play feels awesome."
Bortles may have been paid an off-the-cuff compliment by Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin in his postgame appearance with the media. Tomlin was quizzed as to why the Steelers elected to go with an onside kick with 2:18 remaining and the Steelers still having two timeouts remaining and the two-minute warning. Had they kicked deep to the Jaguars and held them on three downs, they likely would have gotten the ball back close to midfield, needing just one touchdown to tie the game and send it to overtime. But Tomlin wasn't confident that the Steelers would get the ball back.
"We wanted to get the ball back. We hadn't stopped them convincingly enough to take any other approach in my opinion, and it was my decision," Tomlin said.
The Steelers' head coach was accurate in his assessment about stopping the Jaguars' offense. Bortles had helped the Jaguars convert 8-of-14 third-down conversions. His poise in leading the Jaguars in such a hostile environment was huge. He consistently kept the offense in good rhythm, just one week after the offense had sputtered badly in a 10-3 home win over Buffalo. Following Myles Jack's interception at the Steelers' 18-yard line, Bortles checked out of a play and had running back Leonard Fournette sweep around end for a score. Later in the game, Bortles went through his progressions looking at three receivers downfield before making the wise choice of an outlet pass to T.J. Yeldon that produced a 40-yard gain.
And now Bortles is set to lead the Jaguars into their first AFC Championship Game in 18 years. No one expected such a result for the 2017 season. After all, the Jaguars had won a total of 11 games in Bortles' first three seasons with the franchise, one less than what the Jaguars have won this year (10 regular season, two playoffs). The Jaguars had picked up the fifth-year option of Bortles' rookie contract during the offseason, one that will bring him a $19 million payout for 2018. But it will be more than that in the big picture as Bortles looks to have established himself as the team's quarterback for many more seasons.
In the week leading up to Sunday's game with Pittsburgh, Jaguars players read and listened to comments from Steelers' players about what it would be like to have a rematch with the New England Patriots. The Steelers lost to New England 27-24 in Week 15, thus locking up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Patriots. Jaguars players were asked after the game what their thoughts were now about the comments from some of the Pittsburgh players in the week leading up to the game.
"They thought they were the bullies," defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. "No, we were the bullies today, like we were the bullies last game. See you guys next year."
Added defensive end and team sack leader Calais Campbell: "They're a really good team and they are very deserving to be here right now, but so are we. You could tell these guys take it very personal because we got called out, and anytime you call a guy out, you got to expect a fight. There's going to be a fight regardless because we feel like we belong here. We worked hard to be here in this moment. We feel like nobody worked harder than us, so we feel we are deserving. We got another big game next week. Everything we fought for. I guarantee nobody is going to give us a chance. We're going to have to go out there and find a way. I believe in this team. I'm very confident that if we play the way we can play, we can beat anybody."
And from defensive tackle Malik Jackson, came these harsh words: "Coach (Doug Marrone) told us about that this morning. It's disrespectful. It's stupid as f---, to be honest with you. You don't give a team that came in here and smacked you in the mouth ammo to come out here and just be on you all day. We're bullies. We don't need to say we're bullies. We don't need to talk like we're bullies. We're not going to tell you what we're going to do. We're just going to smack you in the mouth, just like we did today."
Strong safety Barry Church added the final word. "We use it all. It is all bulletin-board information," Church said about the remarks from Pittsburgh players. "I mean you go out there and you talk stuff. That's what you're going to do, you're going to poke the bear and the bear is going to come after you. That is all we did. We sent them home. I hope they are happy for that one."
REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS
--PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus - Only two stats are important here - interceptions (0) and TD passes (1). Blake Bortles' total numbers were a pedestrian 14 of 26 for 214 yards, just enough to complement a running game that was efficient. The fact that Bortles was interception-free was huge as it increased his and the Jaguars' season mark to 10-0 when he doesn't throw a pick. He only had one touchdown pass, but that's because three of the Jaguars' TDs were from inside the 5-yard line and the defense accounted for one as well. Bortles did a good job in spreading his passes around, completing a pass to nine different receivers.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A - Prior to his ankle injury midway in the second quarter, Leonard Fornette ran like he did the first six games of the season when he gained 596 yards. Fournette had 82 yards on 12 carries before spraining the ankle that hindered him much of the second half of the season. After going to the locker room to have it re-taped, he managed just 27 yards in 13 carries in the second half, an indication the ankle was bothering him. T.J. Yeldon and Bortles picked up the slack as they combined for 55 yards in 10 carries. It was the type of running attack that led to the Jaguars leading the NFL in rushing this year.
--PASS DEFENSE: F - It certainly didn't look like the same secondary that was so solid throughout the regular season and helped the Jaguars lead the league in fewest passing yards allowed (169.9). After intercepting Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger five times in the previous meeting, the Steelers' QB torched the Jaguars for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Three of the passes were for more than 20 yards as the Jaguars got beat by the pinpoint passing of Roethlisberger. The few bright spots for the pass defense were a Myles Jack interception and Yannick Ngakoue's forced fumble on a Roethlisberger pass play that Telvin Smith turned into a 50-yard touchdown return.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus - Le'Veon Bell rushed for 1,291 yards this season, but managed just 67 against the Jaguars. It marked the second time this season that they held Bell to less than 70 yards. No other running back carried the ball and Roethlisberger gained 16 yards on two scrambles. The biggest stop on Bell came on a 4th-and-1 play in Pittsburgh territory when Jalen Ramsey dropped Bell for a 4-yard loss. While the Jaguars were able to keep the running game in check, it opened the door for Roethlisberger to put the ball in the air 58 times and he made the most of those chances.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B - A second straight playoff game for the Jaguars where the special teams didn't play a significant part in the decision. Josh Lambo had the most important play when he converted a 45-yard field goal with 1:45 left in the game to give the Jaguars a two-score advantage. The Jaguars recovered Pittsburgh's botched onside kick that hit a Steelers player and didn't go 10 yards. Brad Nortman had a punt blocked that ended up going just 15 yards. Lambo's squib kickoff after the Jaguars were hit with a 15-yard penalty before the kick was returned to midfield and led to an easy Steelers TD pass just before halftime.
--COACHING: A - Kudos to head coach Doug Marrone and the staff for keeping the Jaguars focused on the game and not allowing the Steelers' comments during the week about how they were going to beat New England in a rematch, showing disrespect to the Jaguars, get to them. Marrone made a good call when he challenged the ruling of a non-touchdown by Leonard Fournette early in the game as replays overturned the call and awarded the Jaguars a score. Marrone also had a gutsy call on fourth down from the 1-yard line with Fournette diving over for a score. Equally the right call was when he elected to have Lambo kick a field goal instead of going for a first down on fourth-and-1 late in the game.