JACKSONVILLE -- Among the most notable changes in the Jacksonville Jaguars foundation for 2017 was the emphasis the coaches and players put on finishing and winning. Previous Jacksonville teams would play solid football for 50-55 minutes in a game, but then would falter at the end. The result was another loss.
The Jaguars couldn't have picked a worse time to revert back to those ways than what they showed in the final 10 minutes of Sunday's 24-20 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Gillette Stadium.
With 11 minutes left in the game, it appeared the miracle season would extend all the way to Minneapolis where they would play in the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl. Jacksonville held a 10-point lead at 20-10 at that point, had pressured Patriots quarterback Tom Brady enough that the 40-year-old would likely have to wait another year for his next Super Bowl appearance. But then Brady began to look like the Brady that has earned him five Super Bowl wins.
A 21-yard completion to Danny Amendola on a third-and-18 situation was a heart-breaker. A stop on that play would have given the Jaguars some breathing room, to take some time off the clock and nurse their 10-point lead. Four plays later, the Patriots had pushed across a score and had pulled to within three points.
Another possible game-changing play came late in the first half. The Jaguars completed a third-down pass and would have had a first down at the Patriots' 30-yard line. They were marching, had the Patriots' defense on their heels and were headed for a possible 21-3 lead if they pushed across their third touchdown of the half, 17-3 at the worst if they converted on a field-goal attempt. But just before the play got underway, the 25-second play clock ran out, nullifying the first down. Jacksonville couldn't convert following the penalty, enabling the Patriots to put together a late TD drive to cut the lead to 14-10 and gain all the momentum going into the halftime break.
The worst part of the delay of game call was that it followed a New England timeout where quarterback Blake Bortles had been on the sideline talking to the coaches and getting the next play.
"I think it was just a lapse on our part of, it was after a timeout, went in there and we just figured once we called the play and broke the huddle, we were fine," head coach Doug Marrone said. "They started the clock earlier than we anticipated, which they have the right to do. I don't think it was playing later or anything, it was just a lapse of taking something for granted. I really believe that."
So ends the Jaguars unexpected run for a Super Bowl berth. They had become just the third team in NFL history to go from three wins one season to appearing in a championship game the following year. They joined the 2005 New Orleans Saints and the 1966 Houston Oilers, with none of the three teams able to win a conference title and advance to the Super Bowl.
The biggest offseason question for the Jaguars will be what they do with Bortles' contract. Their three options are to bring him back at the $19 million that is the designated pay for the option year of his original contract; they can sign him to a multi-year contract which is saying they want him as their quarterback for the future; or they can release him.
Other big decisions will be whether they sign wide receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee along with cornerback Aaron Colvin to new deals. Robinson missed all but three plays of the 2017 season due to a torn ACL, but was a Pro Bowl pick in 2015 when he had 80 pass receptions for 1,400 yards and a franchise-record 14 touchdowns. Lee has caught 171 passes for 2,166 yards and eight scores in his four seasons with the Jaguars, but he's also missed 11 games with injuries during that time. Colvin has only missed two games in the last three years due to injuries though he was sidelined for four games to start the 2016 season for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy.
REPORT CARD VS. PATRIOTS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus - It's a combination grade of A in the first half, C-minus in the second half, which is a carbon copy of Blake Bortles' season. Bortles was hot for a half, cold for a half. Hot for a game, cold for a game. This was no exception. He hit some good passes, but three of his 23 completions for 293 yards went to Corey Grant on short tosses out of the backfield that Grant turned into 59 yards in his best game this season. Bortles was in the 120.0 range with his passer rating most of the first half, but then fell off the last two quarters and finished at 98.5. But he did go a third consecutive playoff game without a turnover, certainly a bright spot for the future.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus - Once again, the question arose: how can this be the league's No. 1-ranked rushing team and only gain 111 yards on the ground and average 3.2 yards a carry. Leonard Fournette was able to grind out 76 hard-earned yards, but it took 24 carries to get to that total. T.J. Yeldon contributed 25 yards in five attempts to help out. But the running game never seemed to be a threat. Both Fournette and Yeldon had one run over 10 yards and most seemed to net less than four yards. Blake Bortles didn't contribute anything to the running game and that hurt the cause.
--PASS DEFENSE: D - Go against Tom Brady and the grade isn't likely to be very good. It could have been. It was for three quarters. Brady was a solid 17-of-24 for 152 yards and an 87.7 rating entering the fourth quarter. Had those numbers prevailed, the Jaguars likely would have won. But Brady connected on 9-of-14 attempts for 138 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter and that's why the Patriots are moving on to the Super Bowl. The Jaguars' biggest blunder in the secondary came when they allowed a 21-yard completion on a third-and-18 play in the fourth quarter. Three of the four players in the secondary were hit with key pass interference/unnecessary roughness penalties which aided Pats scoring drives.
--RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus - It was headed for an A-plus until New England's final rushing attempt by Dion Lewis. Up until then, the Patriots had only managed 28 rushing yards in 18 attempts. But on a third-and-9 from the 44, Lewis went around left end and kept going for 18 yards. That sealed the Jaguars fate, which otherwise would have gotten the ball back for one last effort at a winning drive. To hold a team to an average of 1.6 yards a game for all but the last 90 seconds should have been enough to get a win.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Like the defense against the rush, it only took one bad play to do in the Jaguars. It came late in the game when Brad Nortman, punting from inside his own 10-yard line, got off a short (41 yards) line-drive kick that Danny Amendola was able to return 20 yards to the 30-yard line. Amendola fooled the coverage team on the play by signaling a baseball safe-sign, to tell his teammates to get away from the ball. Instead, he grabbed it and made the big return that set up the winning touchdown. Good news for the Jaguars was Josh Lambo finished strong with two more field goals including one from 54 yards.
--COACHING: B - It was a solid game plan for the Jaguars, but the coaches didn't adjust to the Patriots' changes and that's on the coaching staff. The swing pass to Corey Grant was successful three straight plays in the first half, but for some reason the Jaguars never went back to it in the second half. The Jaguars are still too hesitant to go with a pass on first down. The numerous Fournette dives into the middle of the line on first down left the team with second-and-long too many times. Six penalties for 98 yards came at inopportune times. Meanwhile, New England was called for one 10-yard infraction on its punt return unit.