FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As painful as the day ended up being for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a couple of things became abundantly clear Sunday afternoon.
The Jaguars belonged in the AFC Championship Game and they’re not going away. They proved they’re going to be every bit the Super Bowl contender in the AFC over the next several years that the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been for the past 20.
The 24-20 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium was just as much of a validation of quarterback Tom Brady’s greatness as it was a failure by the Jaguars. Brady guided the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit in the last Super Bowl and put together two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against a Jaguars defense that finished second in the NFL in the regular season in scoring, turnovers and sacks.
The Jaguars didn’t wilt on the big stage but couldn’t overcome six penalties for 98 yards — including two pass interference penalties — and were unable to get stops late in the fourth quarter.
However, that doesn’t diminish what the team accomplished in 2017: One year after going 3-13 the Jaguars went 10-6, won their first division title since 1999, and made their first playoff appearance since 2007. They did it behind a core of youngsters, especially on defense, and nearly all of their key players will return in 2018.
That almost certainly includes quarterback Blake Bortles, whose performance against the Patriots, as well as throughout the entire postseason, should silence his many critics. The much-maligned Bortles completed 64 percent of his passes for 293 yards and a touchdown and, most importantly, did not turn the ball over.
He needs more help at receiver, which he should get if the team brings back Allen Robinson — who missed the entire season with a torn left ACL — and another year of growth in coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s system.
Bortles didn’t turn it over in the entire postseason and was a critical reason why the Jaguars were playing Sunday. He had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) in the 10-3 wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills, but he threw a fourth-down touchdown pass.
Bortles also led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Pittsburgh after the Steelers had cut the Jaguars’ lead to one touchdown. He hit key throws on both drives, including a deep pass to Keelan Cole to set up one touchdown, and audibled out of a play into a pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon that went for a score.
The Jaguars surprised a lot of people in 2017. That won’t happen next season. It’ll be expected.