How He Almost Achieved Super Bowl Immortality With The Jaguars

Three years after taking his final NFL snap, Blake Bortles officially announced his retirement today. The long-time Jacksonville Jaguar (and short-time Los Angeles Ram) finishes his career second in career passing yards, passing TDs, and sacks for the Jaguars. It was a mixed career for the former No. 3 overall draft pick.

And yet, for all his ups and downs, it’s easy to forget that Bortles was a few minutes away from reaching Super Bowl 52 — a contest he and the Jaguars realistically could have won, perhaps completely altering the trajectory of a franchise that has prevailed in only 17 games (.246 winning percentage) since. Yes, Bortles’ legacy might have been very different if that 2018 AFC Championship game had gone their way.

2017 Jaguars Regular Season

The 2017 Jaguars were coming off their sixth-straight losing season, in a period when they never finished better than 5-11. Three snaps into Week 1, they lost No. 1 WR Allen Robinson for the season with a torn ACL.

But this team persevered, thanks in part to rookie Leonard Fournette bolstering the backfield, while Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook stepped up to support a patchwork passing attack that included veterans Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns. They were No. 5 in the league in offensive time of possession. It was a workman-like offense with no apparent future Hall of Famers, except perhaps Fournette.

The key to this team was its defense, which yielded the fewest passing yards in the league (only 170 per game, which for context, was only seven yards more than Buffalo gave up last season). The Jags also yielded the third-fewest passing TDs while earning the second-most takeaways and sacks.

After winning their first two playoff games against the Bills and Steelers, they faced the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. Ironically, this was an evenly matched David-and-Goliath face-off, as Jacksonville was No. 2 in the NFL in points scored and No. 5 in fewest points yielded, while New England was No. 5 in points scored and No. 2 in points yielded.

Jaguars vs. Patriots: AFC Championship Game

Championship-caliber teams suffer near-misses all the time, and many teams came oh-so-close to toppling the Tom Brady-led Patriots, only to fall just short, and sometimes in the final seconds. So what happened to Jacksonville in this game was neither unique nor entirely unexpected. And yet, rarely has a franchise come so close to this mountaintop, only to lose and then come undone for years to follow.

The Jags took a 14-3 lead in the second quarter while holding Brady to 89 scoreless yards on his first four drives. Then he broke through with less than a minute to go before halftime, as James White found paydirt from one yard out. Notably, White’s TD was set up by successive penalties totaling 47 yards, including a 32-yard pass interference. Even more notably, Jacksonville had tied for the fewest DPI’s (four) during the regular season.

In his first three drives of the second half, Brady was held to only 46 scoreless passing yards, while Jacksonville’s Josh Lambo converted two field goals, pushing the Jags’ lead to 20-10. With less than 11 minutes remaining, Brady found Danny Amendola for 21 yards on 3rd-and-18 at their own 25-yard line. A stop there could have put New England on the ropes. Instead, they found the end zone four plays later and then took the lead for good two drives later, with less than three minutes to go.

During this comeback, as the Patriots’ defense clamped down, Jacksonville’s offense was unable to rise to the occasion. Bortles, for his part, was not entirely bad. He threw for 138 yards in his TD-less second half — only 17 less than in the more successful first half. Fournette garnered only 36 yards on 13 carries in the third and fourth quarters after a more respectable 11-40 in the first half.

In other words, the Patriots were forcing Bortles to beat them. Lacking his No. 1 WR and facing a far more battle-tested opponent, he couldn’t beat them.

Bortles’ Legacy

In many ways, that AFC Championship game defeat defined Bortles’ legacy, for better and for worse. He wasn’t a franchise-elevating quarterback. And some might argue that he was never truly a franchise QB — that much like Mitch Trubisky, he could never meet the high expectations established by his high draft position.

He was a “good” quarterback who nearly achieved immortality. Had they hung on against the Patriots, Jacksonville would have matched up very well against the Nick Foles-led Eagles. A Jaguars Super Bowl victory could have set this franchise on a very different path, beginning with tagging the talented Robinson instead of letting him walk in free agency.

The next season, they lost six games by six points or less, including four by a field goal. Fournette struggled while playing only half a season. Their No. 2 receiver was Donte Moncrief. They still had a youthful, elite defense (fourth-best in points given up) but were 31st in points scored.

The team benched the increasingly struggling Bortles in Week 7, then returned to him in Week 8. After four more losses in a row, he was benched again, returning only in a meaningless Week 17 contest against Houston, which had supplanted Jacksonville as the new AFC South champion.

Bortles’ second-to-last victory was in Week 2 that year when he threw four TD passes against the Patriots. It was a revenge game of sorts, and for 60 minutes, he reminded people how good he could be.

And that, in a nutshell, is Bortles’ legacy. Much like so many quarterbacks who came before him, and so many who will come after, Bortles was an everyman quarterback. He was not exceptional but sometimes played exceptionally. He was not bench fodder, though sometimes he played like someone who should be benched.

In other words, he was human. And for a few minutes on January 21st, 2018, he nearly became a legend.

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